Review: Michele Thomas, Messenger

Michele Thomas, Messenger

29 Aug, 2014 Dan MacIntosh

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Michele Thomas takes her inspiration from Stevie Wonder, even covering some of his most familiar songs on Messenger. However, as jazzy as Wonder can get, Thomas is even jazzier than the iconic Motown artist.

She opens with “Have a Talk with God,” which leans heavy upon funky electric guitar. Thomas also reveals a bit of a feminist strain when she refers to god as ‘she’ toward the end of the track.

Another religious one (then again, God has been all through Wonder’s work over the years) is “Jesus Children.” This song was likely originally inspired by the Jesus People movement of the late 60s/early 70s, particularly in Southern California where churches like Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel were accepting hippies of that era with open arms, while many mainstream churches were trying to hold these long-haired, sloppily-dressed young people at arm’s length. Thomas’ version includes plenty of brass horn work and female backing vocals.

Perhaps the most straightforward jazz song on this collection is “Dee Song (For Andrea).” It’s backed not by a funky guitar part, but with a gentle, Joe Pass-like traditional jazz electric bed, and built upon complicated jazz chords. It’s a soft song that Thomas sings prettily.

“Higher Ground” is sung with the necessary anger. When Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered it, they did so as though it were some sort of fun funk workout. And while the funk groove is undeniable, to sing it without vitriol directed toward the powers that be only gets it half right. Thomas’ version is jazzy, with horns and more of a jazz-fusion feel, rather than some sort of 70s funk. Oh, and she sounds really angry on it.

For “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Thomas transforms the tune into a percolating number that has African music elements running through it. The guitar part sounds a little Nigerian in places. Thomas holds back her vocals when singing it and lets the guitar and simple organ part take up much of the sonic space. At one point, Thomas works in a few lines of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which was a hit – and a popular Civil Rights song – from the 60s.

Thomas gives “If It’s Magic” a breezy jazz feel. The track swings with a shuffling groove. It’s colored by acoustic piano and busy drumming. It’s also a little on the Latin side, stylistically.

On “Triple Play,” Thomas performs her most complicated jazz vocal. The song sounds to be in 6/4 at times, but it’s by no means any sort of waltz. Thomas spars with her electric guitarist throughout, which makes the song into a sort of guitar versus vocal duel. Thomas even scats a bit on the tune.

The album closes with “Big Brother,” and it returns a bit to the African roots Thomas explored with “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Once again, percussion is upfront in the mix. Her take on this song may remind you a little of Paul Simon’s Graceland recording. The song’s lyric is quite dark, as it’s sung from the perspective of someone living in the ghetto. Even so, Thomas infuses the track with a bright, upbeat feel. It’s almost as though she’s fallen in love with the melody; which, in this case, takes priority over the lyric. Even so, it sounds strange to hear Thomas singing in a Chaka Khan-like voice about roach-infested apartments.

Overall, this is a fun collection of reinterpretations. When someone can take such liberties with the original material, and never spoil the memories of Wonder’s version, shows just how strong Stevie’s compositions are. They’re so great melodically other artists can play with them and come up with new and beautiful covers. You may not even reach back for the old Wonder records quite so quickly after listening to this one.

Review By: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)