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Featuring two Stevie Wonder songs on a full-length album is a hat tip. Featuring two Stevie Wonder songs on a five-song EP is a pledge of allegiance. Jazz pianist Mark G. Meadows makes no bones about considering Wonder the all-time greatest songwriter. Be the Change lives up to evoking Wonder’s passion for glorious melody on “Superstition,” and emulates his ability to communicate the personal on “Overjoyed.”
It also includes two Meadows originals, continuing the pianist’s transition from largely instrumental composer to lyrical singer-songwriter. The distinction is a fairly nitpicky one, especially when the songwriting takes such intricate paths as “Go.” A statement about moving forward in one’s life regardless of anxieties, the tune has a sophisticated melodic structure and complex emotions (“I don’t know which way to go/ Do I care to even know?”), without shying away from a pop sensibility. There’s even a rap verse, courtesy of Deacon Izzy. But it doesn’t shy away from jazz, either: There are gorgeous, layered harmonies from Meadows’ piano, John Lee’s electric guitar, and Eliot Seppa’s bass, and exquisite vocal harmonies by Meadows himself and Christie Dashiell, who takes a scat solo.
Meadows’ title track adds Deborah Bond, Lena Seikaly, Nicole Saphos, Shacara West, Danteˈ Pope, and Jus Paul to the backing vocals, creating a gospel-jazz feel that the lyrics reinforce. “We’ll change the world, just you and me/ Just be the change that you wanna see,” they sing. Meadows’ hymn-charged organ line and a down-home solo from guest tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed don’t hurt, either. Meadows may be concerned with matters both personal and political, but he also makes it a priority not to let his message overwhelm the nuances of his music.
Meadows is a gifted arranger of pop-rock standards—see his work on Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” from 2014’s Somethin’ Good, or Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” from 2016’s To the People. He honors that same attribute in his hero Stevie Wonder even as he makes the songs his own. The transformation of “Superstition” is astonishing, a soulful reharmonization that is barely recognizable even as it keeps Wonder’s famous vamp, played by Meadows and Lee together. Meadows’ piano solo is the finishing touch to his indelible stamp. The EP-opening “Overjoyed” doubles down on the song’s inherent delicacy, with Meadows playing Fender Rhodes tones that float away as he touches them. The pace picks up halfway through as Seppa and drummer C.V. Dashiell enter, and though Lee’s solo is intense, it’s also remarkably tender.
Be the Change’s remaining tune, Charlie Chaplin’s immortal “Smile,” which Wonder popularly covered, employs the same vibe as “Overjoyed,” tenderness that cuts through a gauzy, ethereal backdrop. That is, until Meadows’ earthy, blues-informed piano solo, which the pianist deploys with a series of masterful climaxes for piano, guitar, and his own layered vocals. Meadows is careful to keep his evolution anchored in jazz, but even if he weighs that anchor, the journey is one worth following.