Tag Archives: Stevie Wonder

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 13

1. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life

This is probably the first song of Stevie’s that I heard and really heard. I know I’d probably heard his songs growing up, at least the big ones, like “Superstition” and “My Cherie Amour” and “Pasttime Paradise” (by way of Coolio, by way of Weird Al), and most like “Sir Duke.” But I remember really hearing this song for the first time, back in 2004, I believe I was listening to the radio in the car with Colleen and she perked up when “Sir Duke” started playing. If her ear perked, so did mine, so we gave this a listen while we drove.

I remember being struck by the hookiest hook of all time in that opening horn riff. Talk about an earworm; that riff can get stuck in your head for days. I was so moved by it that I resolved to learn how to play that riff on my newly purchased electric guitar. It was fantastic ear practice, and it came at just the right time for me, when I was beginning to discover lead guitar and how awesome it can be to play more than just chords. This horn riff was like honey to me.

But the song has a lot more than just some kick ass horns. The rhythm guitar in the verses is pretty great, and even more subtle, the bass guitar part throughout the song is either mirroring the horn riffs or going all over the freakin’ place on the last few choruses. It’s layered on pretty softly though, so you’ve got to focus to hear it. Once I heard it, my hat flew off in honor of the bassist Nathan Watts, because he really evokes the magnificent lines of guys like James Jamerson and Joseph “Lucky” Scott.

But what’s awesome about this tune, aside from just being super fun, is that it is an ode to Stevie’s musical heroes, and in a more general sense, an ode to music itself. “Sir Duke” is a celebration of one of the purest and most wholesome aspects of music as an art: it’s universality. Music has a way of breaking down barriers and uniting people in a very primal way, and that’s so perfectly illustrated in the way Stevie’s created this tune. At their most uninhibited and vulnerable, I feel like most people would have to find some pleasure or joy listening to the song that Stevie’s written, and that’s a beautiful testament to both Stevie’s talent and also his art.

2. “Mind Trick” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

This tune is a perfect example of how Jamie Cullum manages to stay a middle-of-the-road artist for me, despite the fact that he’s got more talent and musicality than 95% of artists today.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about this song. But it lands in the filler category for me. Cullum is a very unique artist; he can perform a straight forward jazz standard and sound right at home among Sinatra or Martin or any of the jazz crooners from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then he turns into a chameleon, shifting effortlessly between genres and embarking on covers that sound so radically different than the originals.

And if that’s all he did, without a doubt, he’d be one of my Top 5 Favorite Music Artists. But then I run into a tune like this, which again, is not a bad song, but it just doesn’t ever really take off for me. I don’t feel compelled to put this on repeat.

It’s a really simple ditty about how music helps get through a break up. Nothing too fancy, and the music fits it well. It is a really pleasant mix of jazz organ, a nice upbeat pop tempo, some “na-na’s” from the background vocalists. It just doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s pleasant, and that’s about it.

If this is your first introduction to Jamie Cullum, please keep listening to him. Go find another song. Listen to “Get Your Way” and “My Yard,” this album’s opener and closer. Both fantastic tunes. Or if you’re looking for his skill with covers, listen to his cover of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.” It still floors me. What has always left me wanting with Jamie Cullum is that while he has the ability to write songs that stop me in my tracks (like the Rihanna cover, or “Wheels,” or “Take Me Out (Of Myself)”), I feel like songs like “Mind Trick” are a lot easier and therefore more common on his albums. But again, I’d take middling songs like this one over the pap that other jazz-pop musicians put out (I’m looking directly at you, Bublé).

3. “Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek & The Dominoes, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs

This song has the distinction of being the earliest Eric Clapton song that really touches me. Sure, Clapton’s got loads of good songs from his work with John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, but I remember hearing this song for the first time and reacting differently to it than I had to any of Clapton’s other early work.

Listening to it now, I keep coming back to the hook. There’s something about hearing Clapton plead with his love, “I don’t want to fade away…” He communicates some serious anguish. This is a man on his last leg, begging to be able to stay with his love.

His vocal is almost indistinguishable from Delaney Bramlett, and I wrote briefly on a review of Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot why I wasn’t in love with them or Delaney’s voice. However, while they sound shockingly similar, Clapton’s vocal is bolstered completely by the musical component. He employs such a perfect mix of guitar tones all over this song, some clean and when he needs it on the chorus, some very crunchy.

It’s the crunchiness of his tone on the chorus that sets off this interesting juxtaposition between it and his vocal. His vocal sounds as crunchy as his axe does. But when these are placed on top of this gorgeous chord progression and added to the interplay between his multiple guitar parts (this song was recorded before Duane Allman joined the album sessions), it creates this southern rock symphony of sadness. This is the only way this guy would be able to beg for his love to stay.

Urban legend has it that he wrote this song for Patti Boyd, Clapton’s future wife yet then-wife of his friend and former Beatle, George Harrison. I’m not sure what you want to call it, irony, a slap in the face, a gauntlet thrown, but his guitar solo could not sound more like Harrison.

4. “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” – Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head

I must have tons of Coldplay in my Top 1000, because they are definitely making the biggest showing in all of my Shuffle Lessons volumes. Thankfully though, my iPod gave me a more vintage era Coldplay track, as most of the previous ones have been from Mylo Xyloto.

It’s difficult to hear a Coldplay song from AROBTTH or Parachutes without feeling a twinge of sadness. Coldplay now is nothing like Coldplay back then. They are a band that blew up almost too quickly. Their debut, Parachutes, was so highly lauded that by the time AROBTTH came around, they were battling expectations so unfairly high that they were nearly doomed to fail. This was magnified tenfold with the arrival of their third record, X&Y. For my money, AROBTTH is a fantastic sophomore release, despite the constant comparisons to U2 and derision from critics about abandoning the sound of their debut.

This album continues the slow exploration of expansive anthems that Coldplay would eventually become known for and would become their undoing. This particular track is a great example of that. While tunes like “The Scientist” and “Politik” take the anthem theme and run with it, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” is a great example of Coldplay’s early skill in knowing how to build the tension of a song really well.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar strumming the oddly tuned chords that form the basis of the whole track, and without anything else, it’s a difficult to tell where the song is headed. Everything changes with the introduction of the drums at the 0:45 mark. While all the other instrumental parts of this song are hinged around the strummed chord progression, this drum beat is barreling along all on its own. It creates this sense of urgency, like a train in danger of derailing. All the instruments are working together but the drums are on their own and keep this song moving.

But, as with many Coldplay songs, the release they find in their hooks is just so palpable. This is exemplified in each chorus, but especially in the last bridge at 3:45. I think it’s this release that made Coldplay hammer out so many wildly popular singles. They’ve got this incredible skill of building up all this tension, creating this urgency and then letting every instrument hit its mark and everything culminates in this fantastic hook or explosive bridge and it really makes you feel the emotional/musical release. It makes for some really satisfying music that keeps you coming back.

5. “Blue In Green” – Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue

And then my iPod throws me a curveball. This is the first time Miles is making a Shuffle Lessons appearance, which isn’t all that surprising as most of the Miles in my collection probably hasn’t broken through to the Top 1000.

But what a great song to kick off the jazz genre. This is my favorite tune off of Kind Of Blue, one of the most famous jazz records of all time. Interestingly enough, there is some dispute as to whether Miles actually wrote this song (he contends he composed each tune from the album) while pianist Bill Evans is often thought to have written this particular song. Either way, both men create true beauty on this song.

I enjoy this album most at nighttime, in a dimly lit room, needle hitting the vinyl as I’m hitting my second or third cocktail. The beginning piano chords are hypnotic and arresting. It’s these kinds of chords that made me start playing the piano again this year. Hearing the intricacies of the intervals, seeing a thousand accidentals on a page of music and thinking it could never sound good with so many sharps or flats and yet when played, Bill Evans makes this riff sound so sublime. I can’t explain it but it makes me feel so many things when I can stop, close my eyes and let this music wash over me.

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have a talk with God.

i wish mainstream christian music sounded like this. i would listen more.

-jon

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