by Nolan DeBuke
James Austin, Jr. is originally from Chicago, he garnered his guidance from a number of legendary musicians, including extensive study with renowned jazz educator, Barry Harris. Austin received measurable accolades and awards, including the honor of being selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano competition. Austin has
curated and led the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) Jazz Jam series since its inception.
Austin’s debut album is a tribute to one of the most lauded artists in the music industry, Stevie Wonder. Lovingly titled Songs in the Key of Wonder, Austin highlights tasteful instrumental arrangements of some of Wonder’s most well-known tunes. Joined by Bobby Broom: guitar (tracks 5 & 9); Jarrard Harris: alto sax (tracks 1,3,4,7 & 8); Joe Magnarelli: trumpet (tracks 1,3,4,6, & 8); Ben Rubens bass (tracks 1-4 & 6-8); Samuel Torres: percussion (tracks 1-4, & 6-8); Kobie Watkins: drums (tracks 1-9) and David Williams on bass, the album is adorned with a solid stable of New York standouts.
Opening the album is “Isn’t She Lovely,” Austin sets up the melody in the intro with a tasteful solo piano approach, the band joyfully joins in with a solid swinging feel that is deeply felt. Trumpeter, Joe Magnarelli takes the first solo with clear articulation and a focused sound. Altoist, Jarrard Harris adds solid commentary with his solo. Austin’s has a warm and deeply felt swing, his touch is elegant and poised, and each musician adds their slice of magic to the Wonder’s smash hit.
“Part Time Lover,” is given a funky treatment, Bobby Broom guests on this track on guitar. Austin and Broom harmonize the melody and add a depth to the melody that has a frolicking feel. Broom takes a clean and crisp run, utilizing the full range of his guitar and his impeccable rhythm. Austin is dazzling on this track, his touch and sensitivity on the ivories is flowing and buoyant with a swinging rhythm. The track has an easy going feel and emotion to it, that leaves your spirit lifted.
Austin has created a delightful listen with Songs in the Key of Wonder. His interpretations are easy going and respectful of the original intent by Wonder. Played with finesse and solid panache, the stylish rendering augurs well for this debut artist.