We Six takes on Stevie Wonder

We Six brought a spectacular show paying tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder, giving the Motown artist’s music a jazzy restyling with original arrangements.

By - Mar 23rd, 2013 01:21 pm
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We Six paid tribute to Stevie Wonder at a strong Wisconsin Conservatory concert Thursday night.

When one thinks of jazz there are usually a few adjectives that come to mind – dark, smoky, electric. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is anything but, so waiting there for renowned jazz sextet We Six to arrive was a little jarring. I shouldn’t have worried. We Six brought a spectacular show paying tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder, giving the Motown artist’s music a jazzy restyling with original arrangements.

We Six’s members include Eric Jacobson on trumpet; Paul Silbergleit on guitar; Mark Davis on piano, Jeff Hamann on bass, David Bayles on drums, and Eric Shoor on tenor saxophone. It was clear the band had soul with the first strum of the bass in the opening number: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Arranged on the packed stage with horns out front, Jacobson tipped his trumpet to the ceiling with a solo that soared above the crowd; he then handed it to Shoor who continued the song’s momentum with a series of riffing.

The intimacy of the room offered the audience unfiltered volume and a close look at the incredible speed at which the players’ fingers danced across their instruments. The men’s faces were also a delight to watch, turning shades of pink to deliver resounding notes. Davis and Silbergleit showed off some impressive runs, while Bayles kept the beat with some impressive cross-sticking.

When the band slowed it down for their second song, a seductive rendition of Wonder’s “Creepin’,” the brightly lit hall quickly transformed into a ubiquitous underground jazz club. Audience members closed their eyes and bobbed their head as the piano’s free melody rose to meet the horn’s uniform brassy tones. This is where Shoor’s rousing sax solo’s speed and calibration really shone. The piano seemed to drag on a bit too long after a while, but the audience still tapped away.

In their next arrangement, the group chose “Moon Blue.” Silbergleit introduced the song and joked: “Every tribute concert needs a slow jam.” This is one of Stevie Wonder’s most recent hits, reflected in Bayles’ modern drumming. Throughout the song, his part provided contrast to the instrumental jazz composition with a decidedly urban sound. Hamann’s bass, though subtle at first, provided a dark dramatic feel. Davis got to shine here; in previous songs his harmonies were sometimes lost due to the horns standing out.

For “Songs in the Key of Life,” the band chose a complex arrangement. The song was performed in odd-meter – a polyphonic and asymmetrical style that is extremely difficult to achieve. Despite the members’ evident counting, the band managed to avoid a haphazard crack and executed the song with accuracy and titillating flair. People in the audience were leaning forward in their chairs not only to listen to the intriguing sounds, but to watch the members of the band as they each performed their solos.

After a brief intermission, We Six parlayed to the crowd’s popular appeal with a charming version of “Isn’t She Lovely.” When the song finished, five of the band members abruptly left the stage causing a moment of confusion among the audience until Silbergleit pulled his guitar strap over his shoulder for an unexpected solo. “I guess it’s just you and me,” he joked.

His solo wasn’t introduced (and I unfortunately didn’t recognize it), but it was both beautiful and intense. Adding to the song’s enchantment was Silbergleit’s clear passion for the music; his head moved to the cadence, his hips swayed, and his shoulders curled with each concentrated note. It was a pleasure to watch.

After, Silbergleit offered Hamann, Davis and Bayles the stage and together they performed “You and I.” The song was raw jazz, enhanced by Bayles’ riveting drumming. He used brushes, adding a stormy sound to the song similar to raindrops on a tiled roof.

The full band returned to play a funk version of “I Wish,” the last song of the evening. Every instrument was played to full force. The audience could scarcely stay in their seats as the volume of the set’s climax created a pulse that ran across the floor and melded with the rhythmic heartbeats of the crowd.  

“One more!” shouted an audience member. The band just smiled and wound down the tune until the music faded away.

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