Yesterday was the annual Stevie Wonder’s House Full of Toys benefit. This year, Stevie asked Rickey Minor to serve as music director for the guest artists, so I was thrilled to have my first opportunity to work with Rickey as a music director! Last year, at the Hollywood Bowl concert, Rickey conducted the string section, but I hadn’t worked with him directly…until now!
The guest artists were all wonderful:
Lauren Smith, a classical Soprano;
Fior, a singer/pianist/songwriter;
Leigh Jones , a singer/pianist/songwriter;
Shelea Frazier, a singer/pianist/songwriter;
Boney James, the saxophonist;
Esperanza Spalding, a singer/bassist/songwriter, and
Maysa Leak, singer/songwriter from the heralded group Incognito.
I arrived in LA Friday morning, and was taken to rehearsal at the Nokia at 3pm. It was lovely to see everyone again. All of the band, staff and crew were present, and I made sure to go around and give hugs to everyone. After a brief lunch, we headed to the stage to rehearse for the show. By Friday afternoon, we still hadn’t received charts (sheet music) to use for rehearsal, so we focused on Stevie’s music, knowing we’d have to work hard the next day to prepare for the guest artists. The stage had to be clear by 11pm, so we finished and said goodnight. I managed to go to sleep before 1am! A miracle! Saturday morning, I woke up at 8:30am, and tried to make a few charts on my own. I finished 2 charts, but ran out of time before needing to head to reception for the shuttle back to the Nokia. Once we arrived at the Nokia, Rickey was ready to get to work. I grabbed a veggie wrap, went to my keyboard station, and was more than a little delighted to find that Rickey had prepared charts of all of the music for us. Hallelujah!!! The show would have been so much more difficult without charts.
We rehearsed most of the music without the artists for a couple of hours, took a short 10-minute break, and then started rehearsing with the artists. Everything went very well, and relatively easily. However, there was one song that required a solo piano while Esperanza sang. I hadn’t had time to examine, much less practice, her song, and I’d only heard it once, but it was time for me to rehearse accompanying her. That was the most frustrating moment of the day. I am a perfectionist, and, being familiar with her astonishing talent, I wanted to do the music justice. I sight read it decently, and she complimented me, but I just wish I’d had a chance to really work the tune before having had to play it with her. Oh well! In the end, Stevie played and sang the song with her, but it was a pleasure to have accompanied her, even if only in rehearsal.
We finally stopped rehearsing at 7:15pm, and I had to rush to get some food, get dressed and head to the stage. We had a make up artist to work for us, but because of the long rehearsal, he didn’t have time to get to everyone. I’d been excited about having a professional make my face, but alas, it wasn’t to be!
Stevie opened the show with some fun Christmas sing-a-longs, and then sang a solo while accompanying himself on the piano. The first guest artist was Lauren, who sang a gorgeous rendition of Summertime, with her accompanist, Manuel Arellano, at the piano. She then sang “O Holy Night”. Nate and I accompanied she and Manuel, while Stevie took a harmonica solo during the piece. Next up, Fior sang 2 of her own compositions, both very heart felt and evocative with compelling piano motifs. After her performance, Stevie had the band join him onstage for a rendition of “My Cherie Amour”, and we stayed onstage to accompany Leigh Jones’ soulful rendition of her catchy tune “Free Fall”. After more songs with Stevie, Shelea Frazier came on stage and accompanied herself on the piano singing “Who Could Imagine A King”. What a beautiful performance! I loved everything about it! Next, she sang a song that she composed in honor of Barack Obama’s election, and after she started the song on the piano, the band came in, and I took over the piano part.
The next artist, Boney James, was a lot of fun! He’s a vibrant performer, and chose two popular songs he’s recorded “The Christmas Song” and “I’m Gonna Love You” (on his upcoming CD). The next scheduled guest artist was Esperanza Spalding. Esperanza is nothing short of amazing. She epitomizes musicality, is utterly brilliant on the bass and has the voice of an angel. I was astonished at her musical knowledge and prowess. Her music was challenging, but invigorating. She sang her compositions “Fall In” (which I ended up not playing – but the boss did a beautiful job…of course! lol) and “I Know You Know”, which are both great tunes.
At this point, we moved into Wonder music, playing songs from the tour set list. In the midst of the set list, Stevie announced a surprise guest, Tyrese. Tyrese performed several songs (much to the delight of we female observers!), and joined us for the remainder of Stevie’s set. Maysa Leak, performed a great rendition of her version of “Don’t You Worry About a Thing”.
Despite the stress of learning so much music, it was a great show! Everyone performed well, I was happy with my performance, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves. Best of all, everyone involved with the show was pleasant, friendly, talented, and genuinely happy to be there! What a way to celebrate the season. Happy holidays to everyone!