Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder captured my teenage heart, mind and soul and have not let go. The messages within their music – built around core themes such as strength, love and joy -- are imbued with African-American spirit, and yet embody a wide variety of human emotions and experience. They are delivered with power, artistry and elegance via memorable and singable melodies, rich harmonies, compelling lyrics, infectious grooves, outstanding arrangements and superb performances. Happily, the commercial success of these great artists reflects their brilliance.
I discovered their music as a young man growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1970s. My habit of practicing with the radio helped me learn pop songs – EW&F and Stevie Wonder became early favorites -- and develop basic improvisation skills. That led me to join a local band called “Stratosphere”, a garage band that actually rehearsed in a garage! We played the “jazz” of that era: songs by Grover Washington, Jr., Ronnie Laws, The Crusaders and others. We also covered “Do I Do”, which was the first Stevie Wonder song I played. (Lucky me, the band played the tune in the key of C Major, even though Stevie did it in B Major!) I soon got into straight ahead jazz, but throughout my high school and college years and beyond, I listened to, learned and performed more and more songs by EW&F and Stevie Wonder.
This album augments the “contemporary standards” repertoire I’ve built over the years -- jazz interpretations of the “American Songbook” of my generation. As a matter of artistic and emotional expression, my exploring this music has been highly rewarding, stimulating and FUN! This is the music that first imprinted my teenage brain, so I feel especially inspired to fly creatively with the band. Audiences have felt this at our gigs, too. Our performances, which are grooving and mellifluous but often complex and unpredictable (in classic modern jazz style), are enhanced by these well-known tunes – they remind us that jazz has and will always have roots in popular music. When played with joy and swing, these songs become a bridge into the modern jazz world.
I selected these particular tunes based on my ability to arrange and play them creatively and effectively with my jazz groups. Some tunes, like Stevie's “I Can't Help It” for example, adapted effortlessly, and others, like EW&F's “Fantasy”, took some thought. I carefully studied each original version before adding various jazz elements such as the rhythmic approach, a reharmonized chord progression, and in a couple of cases, an ensemble section (also known as a “Special”). Once the initial arrangements were done, I engaged my bandmates and put all this thought into action on the bandstand. I was fortunate enough to perform most of this music on gigs before we recorded it, so I was able to feel how it worked “live,” and incorporate my bandmates' own musical experience.
We did three recording sessions for this project, the first being in Summer 2014 with Brandon McCune, Joris Teepe and Cecil Brooks III. Later that year, I got sidelined by a scary, potentially career-ending surgery, which, thankfully, went well. In 2016, I was commissioned to perform this music with the Litchfield Jazz Orchestra at the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Writing big band charts of this material inspired more creative ideas for this CD, and I got back into the studio in September 2017 to record more songs with my most recent working band: Art Hirahara, Kenny Davis, and Jeremy Warren. Finally, in early 2018 Kahlil Bell recorded percussion on several tracks. All these incredible musicians brought their own flair, and have been amazing partners in the development of this music.
Below are a few “insider” notes for each track.
“Fantasy”, from EW&F’s All 'n All, opens with that classic flourish, first with the original harmony, then the reharmonized version of the same phrase to foreshadow the upcoming musical journey. It settles into a medium-up swing, with Brandon and myself soloing over different sections of its very long song-form.
We had been playing the swing arrangement of EW&F's “Can’t Hide Love” for years, so inspired by the big band chart, I added a new Special after the solo section, which hints back to the funky roots of the song. The sultry tone of the alto flute shines on Stevie Wonder’s “Visions”, which features a four-note ostinato bass figure to tie together the through-composed reharmonized chord progression. EW&F’s “Getaway” has a long, sectional song-form, but the solo section is a succinct AAB form, with 8, 8, and 9 bars. It’s the first arrangement I conceived for this CD.
I first heard “I Can’t Help It” as background music in a hotel business center while I was practicing flute there in the middle of the night (on the road we practice where we can!) I recognized (another favorite artist) Michael Jackson’s voice, but the song didn’t sound like classic MJ. Turns out that he had recorded this Stevie tune on Off the Wall, and that it was already a contemporary standard performed by a number of my jazz colleagues. The piano intro started out as a coloristic warm-up by Brandon, which we kept.
The two originals were inspired by this album’s concept. I composed “The Elements” based on the classic four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The song opens with four 4-bar variants of the main motif, each with a different melodic and harmonic character (corresponding to its element), followed by the main jazz chorus. The song alternates between these two sections. “The Wonder of You”, like so many Stevie songs, mixes a lyrical melody, jazz harmony and a groove – in this case, a mellow bossa-funk.
EW&F’s “After the Love is Gone” is another already established contemporary standard; in fact, we used the chart from Chuck Sher’s “The World’s Greatest Fake Book”. During the extended tag ending, I quote the classic Don Myrick sax solo before improvising the rest of the track. We swing out on Stevie’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”, which is the only tune on this CD we play in a key other than the original key (E minor instead of Eb). We close with a grooving shuffle version of Stevie’s “Higher Ground”, which I had originally arranged for the first Prins Claus Conservatoire faculty CD entitled “Jazz In, Jazz Out”, produced by our bassist Joris Teepe. The Special on this one launches with a quote from Sonny Rollins’ “Alfie’s Theme”.
I hope this music energizes and inspires you to hear with “new ears”. I encourage you to dig deeper into the remarkable music of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. I recommend that you also check out Philip Bailey’s book, “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire”; it’s awesome. We’ll see you at the next gig!
- Don Braden, March, 2018
Don Braden is a world class musician who has recorded and toured with a number of jazz luminaries, and has produced 21 albums as a leader. He attended Harvard University as an Engineering major but decided to pursue his love of jazz, eventually being dubbed as one of the so-called “young lions” during the 1980s. Braden has written hundreds of compositions for a variety of ensembles, from duo to full symphonic orchestra, including many for TV and film. In addition he is a highly experienced jazz educator, having taught at several institutions (including Harvard University and the Litchfield Jazz Camp), and having presented numerous workshops around the world.