On Friday, Stevie Wonder showed up unannounced near the end of a downtown concert featuring Los Angeles band Ozomatli. The Grand Performances-produced evening celebrated the release of "Songs in the Key of L.A.," a book on the early Los Angeles sheet music collection held at the L.A. Public Library, by inviting onto the stage a few dozen musicians (Jackson Browne, La Santa Cecilia, Rob Gonzalez, Ceci Bastida, I See Hawks in L.A. and the Petrojvic Blasting Company) to play old songs and more recent jams inspired by Los Angeles.
During my review of the show, I remarked on Wonder and Ozomatli's transcendent rendition of his "Land of La La," a lesser known 1985 track from "In Square Circle." That album is best known for "Part-Time Lover," but it was the thematically fitting "La La" that Wonder offered -- and a performance I haven't been able to shake five days later. Luckily, a few amateur videographers recorded it.
Those interested in witnessing expert musicians adapting to an improvised situation and transforming it into bliss should take the time to witness below.
Wonder had been slated to play the song with an instrumental backing track, which is how he began on Friday, with him on electric piano and the quick-tempoed rhythm track offering support.
As shown in the video, at the 2:15 mark Wonder's backing track suddenly cut out. The artist, seeming confused but as professional as always, paused and said something to the sound guy as an awkward silence threatened to derail the whole thing. But instead, Wonder slowly started rolling out the melody on his own, adjusting the arrangement on the fly to fit the new circumstances. Looping the 16-bar melody, Wonder kept the momentum going. Disaster averted.
Three minutes in, the sound of Ozomatli's Justin Poree banging on a tambourine started to click with Wonder's piano. Backstage someone on Wonder's team, sensing an opportunity, encouraged Poree and others to continue, and gradually the seven members of Ozomatli grabbed their sticks and horns, strapped on their instruments and, having never before rehearsed the song with Wonder, caught the beat, melody, then the bass line, then the arrangement on the fly.
Over four minutes in, Wonder began the lyrics from the top, as though this was all planned. It wasn't.
Wonder stayed onstage for Ozomatli's "Como Ves," which featured a heavenly keyboard turn from Wonder followed by a harmonica solo. Midway in, Wonder started teasing Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," then they all moved back to "Como Ves." Near the end, he punctuated the song with a bellowed chant in honor of Trayvon Martin: "Stand your peace, not your ground!"
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