“You can’t base your life on other people’s expectations.” ~ Stevie Wonder
The expectations are set extremely high when you propose to present a tribute album to one of America’s greatest and most endeared musical icons. Vernon Neilly is just the man for the job. On Vernon Neilly and Friends A Tribute To Stevie Wonder, the award winning jazz guitarist and CEO of Boosweet Records assembled some very impressive “friends” to assist him on his mission to provide fresh and updated twists on some of Stevie Wonder’s biggest hits. The major twist being that each song was a showcase of gifted guitar stylists.
An instrumental take on “Boogie On Reggae Woman” featuring fusion guitar master Greg Howe gets the recording off to a wonderful funk-fusion start. Howe provides incredible wah-wah and lead licks alongside Juan Nelson grooving on bass. It sets the tone for the entire project that features sparkling production values throughout. “I Wish” continues the shredfest with Brazilian-born guitarist Kiki Loureiro offering up some firey fretwork with piano accompaniment by Yaniel Matos. Kiko is a power metal master adept at combining rapid streams of notes with a melodic graceful edge.
“Superstition” is Bill Hudson’s turn to assume the lead guitar role and he handles the task admirably (Jeff Beck on the original “Superstition” is a tough act to follow). The song is given a heavy-metal treatment, complete with expert heavy metal vocalizing by Carlos Zema. The template used here is closer to the blueprints of power-trios Beck, Bogert & Appice or Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, rather than the Stevie Wonder original.
The vocals of Christopher Clark and the masterful guitar work of Miguel Mega are displayed on “Sir Duke” and “For Once In My Life.” Clark is amply funky and a great choice for the project. Mega hails from Brazil and this sort of fusion meets funk fits him like a glove. Miguel was a featured participant on both of Vernon’s G-Fire (short for guitars on fire) CD’s; two award winning & Billboard Top 10 charting projects grouping four diverse guitar masters released on Vernon’s Boosweet label. “Isn’t She Lovely,” in its first of two appearances on the album, is accentuated by brilliant sax virtuoso Michael Paulo adding splendid flavoring and vocals from Fabyan Irvan that hits the bullseye. Vernon is tunefully tasty taking the spotlight with his guitar solo mid-song.
My favorite track on this great album is “I Was Made To Love Her” showcasing the jazzy guitar greatness of U-Nam. This French guitarist supreme was born Emmanuel Abiteboul (U-Nam is ‘Manu’ spelled backwards). He successfully mixes traditional jazz elements, a la George Benson, with more modern, urban sounds to create a wondrous listening experience. His many acrobatic guitar runs are soulfully sublime; an exceptional aural treat. To stand out on an album containing so many marvelous guitarists is a testament to his skill. Progressive master Kiko Loureiro begins “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” with Latin-inspired guitar string bending that later seques into blistering speedy guitar.
“Boogie On Reggae Woman” is repeated in a vocal version with Vernon utilizing his Digitech Talker voice box to synthesize the singing. The song once again fuses funk, soul, rock and jazz into a delightful and danceable blend. The album’s closer is an instrumental remake of “Isn’t She Lovely” that is beautifully played by Vernon. It mirrors the reverence shown to the song in the rendition by Lee Ritenour on his classic ‘Captain Fingers’ release. A fitting choice to close the album, it shows Vernon at his best, playing notes with a clarity and beauty that is guaranteed to inspire guitarists from all genres.
Stevie Wonder has written so many high quality songs, and has provided a soundtrack to most of our lives in his lengthy and illustrious career. That being said, there is a chance that your personal favorite Stevie Wonder cut may have been overlooked on this album. Perhaps Vernon and his friends, given the deserved acclaim afforded, will see fit to someday add a volume two. I sincerely hope so.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com