Yesterdays New Quintet- Stevie

May 2nd, 2004

In ownership of seventeen Stevie Wonder albums, I took great interest when I first heard that Madlib and his Yesterdays New Quintet outfit would be reworking some of my favourite tracks of all time. First off, the idea of my favourite all round musician blended with my most favourite genre excited me to great lengths. Could it get any better? The soul of Stevie blended with the beats of rap! Then came the nerves. Was Madlib about to hack to death some of the greatest works of a soul icon, pioneer and legend? The prelude and first track ‘Superstition’ helped me relax. I soon understood what it was the product was doing, and sat back to enjoy.

Using percussion, bass and keys, each of the eleven tracks smoothly reworks a Stevie masterpiece, replacing sometimes loud and energetic sounds with chilled, laid back vibes, using soft and warm synthesisers. Much of the time, the entire track is of a new orientation, holding few similarities with the original, besides from the stand out sound of a sometimes hard to define synthesiser, which loosely follows the originals tune. What’s nice at some points, is that the reworking of one classic contains a snippet of another classics face lift, meaning that besides from the ten full covers, you get glimpses of trademark Stevie such as ‘As’ at the end of the new ‘I am Singing’.

The choice of tracks to play with seems wise. Rather than taking the likes of ‘Pastime Paradise’ and ‘I Wish’ which music listeners of most ages are likely to be familiar with through Will Smith’s and Coolio’s raping of them during the 90’s, YNQ have picked songs which stand highly in the soul fans list of greatest Stevie songs, yet which wont be familiar to a lot, hopefully leading to the listeners going out and listening to the originals. Also, the originals chosen all share comparisons in atmosphere and chronology.

The hardest part of listening to this for me was hearing the original versions lyrics and vocals playing in my memory which didn’t always fit with the new sounds. Being extremely aware and familiar with every note of a Stevie Wonder track, it was some times hard to get used to not hearing a specific adlib or drum pattern. That’s not to say the quality or enjoyment of any of this was poor. For seasoned Stevie fans, they’ll just have to listen to this a few times before they get everything out of it that it has to offer. For those unfamiliar with Stevie, they haven’t got that process to undergo and can immediately play this on a quiet Summers evening and unwind from the stress of everyday life.

I suspect that this is as good as a tribute to Stevie Wonder, which it is marketed as, can get. It’s a welcomed change from the mountains of awful compilations of nu-soul artists painfully singing away to the originals. There’s no vocals on here, the most important criteria for anything which wishes to show respect to someone who’s vocals are impossible to reproduce, at even half of its quality.

Everything’s beautiful, from the actual music to its CD packaging and cover work, which features original art with the same colours, flavours and formatting of each release which makes up the Wonder legacy which this humbly expresses its admiration to. Those who got excited at the news that Def Jux founder El-P was working on a jazz product, and who then felt disappointed at his lack of focus and invention will find this album a much more satisfying affair.