Glasper Stages “Songs in the Key of Life” in Harlem
Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” has been deemed one of the best albums in history (Rolling Stone ranked it 56 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time), garnering both commercial (certified diamond in the US) and critical (seven Grammy nominations) success. Originally released in the fall of 1976, the album has reached that plateau where great music lives forever. And, where younger musicians feel that they need to pay homage to it. Such is the case with Robert Glasper’s recent showcase at Harlem Stage’s Gatehouse.
For four sold-out shows, Glasper and friends tackled Wonder’s masterpiece, with their own interpretations. Yet, they never strayed too far from the source material, citing that there is really no need to do so. Instead, the songs were embraced, stretched in a warm and loving manner, much like a baker kneading the perfect loaf. The precision in which they handled the songs, however, was met with an equal amount of emotion and soul-baring.
My good friend Kevin-Anthony (B2: Productions, Black 2: Broadway) and I attended the second show on Thursday evening; I am not sure, however, if the lineup remained the same throughout all four shows. For our experience, Eric Roberson kicked off the night with his trademark humor, followed by former Mint Condition front man Stokely Williams, whose voice did somersaults and rhythmic African dances. Up next was Lalah Hathaway, who pulled a standing ovation. In the hard-act-to-follow slot was Gretchen Parlato, who I didn’t know but quickly discerned that she had nothing to worry about after all. A quick Google search explained exactly who Ms. Parlato is and I am embarrassed not to have known her in the first place. I do, however, now own a copy of her 2011 jazz album “Lost and Found.”
The rotation continued, with Stokely doing two more song, followed by Roberson and Hathaway closing out the show. I made some notes, but honestly, I sat back and enjoyed the show, forgetting that I was there on assignment. The performances were so up-close and intimate that I didn’t really want to feel like I was at work. Halfway through Hathaway’s first song, I realized I was leaned back in my chair, eyes closed, just soaking up the rich, textured tone of her voice. It was like drinking a snifter of aged Angostura rum through my ears.
(Aside: A great conversation with Hathaway.)
Glasper, the mastermind behind the evening, deftly handled the keys as if Stevie Wonder himself was onstage. His band consisted of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (opening the set), followed by Mark Colenburg on drums, Casey Benjamin on sax, Derrick Hodge on bass, Yuki Hirano on synthesizer, Mike Moreno on guitar and Gregoire Maret doing things with a harmonica that I have never before experienced.
The event represented the winding down of the fall season for Harlem Stage. With only two more events before the winter break, the institute, which is celebrating their 30th year in existence, certainly gave their members – and the community as a whole – plenty to be thankful for this holiday season.
To learn more about Harlem Stage, please visit www.harlemstage.org.
For more on The Robert Glasper Experiment, please visit www.robertglasper.com.