Deep Blue Organ Trio brings something special to ‘Wonderful!’ Stevie Wonder tribute

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Chicago’s Deep Blue Organ Trio is B-3 organist Chris Foreman, guitarist Bobby Broom, and drummer Greg Rockingham. Together, they make Stevie Wonder’s 1970s hits sing, in “Wonderful!” CREDIT: John Broughton and Harvey S. Tills

“We wanted to find the right material and focused on ways to keep the organ trio sound honest and the way Deep Blue plays intact, and do Stevie’s music justice. We wanted to be creative without going overboard or changing things just for the sake of changing them. We wanted to get the essence of the songs, do a little tweaking and go.”

Deep Blue Organ Trio’s fourth album gently takes nine Stevie Wonder compositions — four monster hits, one a Rufus & Chaka Khan hit — for a jazz instrumental ride.

Made up of quality musicians from Chicago (guitarist Bobby Broom, B-3 organist Chris Foreman, and drummer Greg Rockingham), Deep Blue Organ Trio released Wonderful! on August 16, 2011, and has not stopped reaping the accolades from critics and audiences. Wall Street Journal jazz critic Mark Myers singled it out as his favorite of 2011. Wonderful! also hit all the right charts, #1 on JazzWeek Top 50 Jazz Albums and the CMJ Jazz Top 40. The 12-year-old band enjoyed a successful six-city, West Coast tour — their first — throughout February to promote the album.

For good reason. Wonderful! is wonderful, a respectful, subdued, and at times, brilliant riff on some delectably dense, some light frothy, some vintage Stevie Wonder masterpieces. Tackling an ambitious tribute of this nature could go one of two ways: a train wreck of over-complicated one-upmanship, or a sophisticated, quiet transformation that neither detracts from the cachet of the original nor cheapens the imitation.

Deep Blue Organ Trio thankfully went the right way. They didn’t want to over-complicate an already complicated series, so they simplified the process to its bare bones, remembering that melody is everything. “We wanted to find the right material and focused on ways to keep the organ trio sound honest and the way Deep Blue plays intact, and do Stevie’s music justice,” Broom explained. “We wanted to be creative without going overboard or changing things just for the sake of changing them. We wanted to get the essence of the songs, do a little tweaking and go.”

“This trio is a paragon of taste and style, avoiding exhibitionism in favor of a more soulful worldview, and this particular outlook serves the music well at every turn.” –Dan Bilawsky, AllAboutJazz.com

To do that, they went over the songs with a fine-toothed comb, ensuring the melodies as Wonder sang them remained intact, as well as their meanings, “and then tried to come up with some type of idea of how to play them in a different vein. We made sure that we understood the words of each song so that we could play the melodies true to what Stevie was saying,” added Rockingham.

Some of these songs are almost too complicated to replicate, much less do something different and jazz-worthy on. It’s Stevie Wonder, a living legacy known for going into depths nobody’s ever heard of and tapping into our crazy interconnected, multi-ethnic cultures. “Jesus Children of America” (from the 1973 album, “Innervisions”), for example, may not have received as much airplay or been as well-received by the populace as “My Cherie Amour,” but it is as true a Wonder reflection; it’s full of social message, emotional depth, and musical, orchestral layers that borrow from many different cultural sources.

Deep Blue Organ Trio’s version touches on all the right melodic chords, led by organist Chris Foreman, also born blind. In the Trio’s hands, however, the somber message of walking the spiritual walk takes on a soulful, funky transmutation. In place of Wonder’s eerie, other-worldly echo, heavy twangy ’70s bass electronica, is an almost lighter, cleaner tone found uniquely in the organ, with hints of pain, heartbreak, and depravity as witnessed on Broom’s masterful, wailing guitar.

“So infectious are these tracks that the recording has a natural thrust — one great tune ends and you’re anticipating the next hit. … Broom is in sterling form here, as good as he was on his recent Monk tribute record, and he plays with a Wes Montgomery-like facility and grace.” –Nick Bewsey, Icon

In fact, Broom — who’s played with Sonny Rollins, Charles Earland, and Dr. John, and has his own skyrocketing career — often elevates the monotone church effect of the classic organ sound, even if it’s played by B-3 wizard Rockingham.

On the more recognizable songs, like “My Cherie Amour” and “As,” the band tends toward a funeral dirge, with the slow-tempo organ trudging along, bringing the vibe down. It is only when Broom slips in on his guitar, with his thoughtful, bluesy licks, that the song’s soul comes alive. “My Cherie Amour” is in danger of putting the listener to sleep, going against the grain of the original, pleasant Top 40 pop love song — until Broom fills the droning spaces with tone, caress, and a spark uniquely, flowingly his own. His well-placed guitar notes restore the musical and lyrical yearning of the song as one about unrequited love and missed chances, with a forlorn, restrained, seductive call that the organist then finally follows. When the organ and drums pick up and follow suit for the building crescendo, it saves the song entirely.

“As” turns into an entirely different animal when Broom gets a hold of it and takes over. He takes Wonder’s psychelic-soul anthem that goes on forever, lingering in the mind, as if on a sonic drug potion, and takes it down to earth, to the level of refined, deeply grooved jazz-funk to where it becomes its own hybrid… reachable, touchable, jazz.

Quite often, it’s Bobby Broom’s guitar-playing that saves most of the songs on this album. Having an organ going on in any band can reduce everything to this almost cartoony church Muzak effect. Without Broom around to lift the dirges into the soulful hemisphere, Wonderful! would’ve fallen flat.

The Chicago trio of guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Chris Foreman, and organist Greg Rockingham lifts this Stevie Wonder hit with some special jazz sauce.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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