Deconstructing Stevie Wonder’s Ode to Jazz and His Hero Duke Ellington: A Great Breakdown of “Sir Duke”

I nev­er real­ly liked the­o­ry class­es very much. To be hon­est, I was nev­er that good at them. I’ve def­i­nite­ly learned more from using my ears rather than my brain.  

- Musi­cian Jacob Col­lier

I too, find music the­o­ry con­found­ing, but unlike musi­cal poly­math Col­lier, I don’t have much of an ear to fall back on.

Which is pos­si­bly why I learned so much from his appear­ance on Vox’s Ear­worm, above. He lent me his ears.

Ten min­utes in, I think I maybe, sort-of under­stand what chro­mati­cism is.

Rather than pull exam­ples from a num­ber of sources, Col­lier con­cen­trates on his “musi­cal crush” Ste­vie Won­der’s chart top­ping 1976 trib­ute to jazz leg­end Duke Elling­ton, “Sir Duke.” As Col­lier told Time Out Israel’s Jen­nifer Green­berg:

I believe that when you lis­ten to music, it gives you this periph­ery of great stuff in your ears and then when you sit down to make music of your own, those are your teach­ers, those are your guid­ing forces. It’s bet­ter to have Ste­vie Won­der as a ref­er­ence point than say “this text­book that I read in class” …Ste­vie is my num­ber one. As a kid, he rep­re­sent­ed every­thing that I real­ly loved about music: he had all the chops, he had all the chords, he had all the funky stuff, all the groove, but then had that voice and behind the voice, he had this soul and feel­ings, and he also had this sense of humor mixed with this human­i­ty.

Col­lier has the innate know-how to break down those grooves, from the big band feel of the open­ing drums to the Motown sound back­beat of the verse.

Aid­ed by series pro­duc­er Estelle Caswell and some graph­ics that visu­al­ize such fun­da­men­tal­ly aur­al con­cepts as har­mo­ny and the pen­ta­ton­ic scale, Col­lier artic­u­lates in pure­ly musi­cal terms what makes this endur­ing hit so catchy.

Cer­tain­ly, the exu­ber­ant shout cho­rus doesn’t hurt.

Col­lier has delved into Wonder’s cat­a­logue before, leap­ing on the oppor­tu­ni­ty to har­mo­nize with him­self.

That’s him above, at age 17, per­form­ing an a cap­pel­la “Isn’t She Love­ly,” his melod­i­ca stand­ing in for Won­der’s icon­ic har­mon­i­ca solo.

And Wonder’s “Don’t You Wor­ry ‘Bout A Thing,” below, pre­sent­ed his great­est chal­lenge as an arranger, due to such quirks as “unex­pect­ed sus­pen­sion chords” and the dia­ton­ic descend­ing melody. Hold on to your hats at the 2:26 mark when the screen splits into over a dozen sec­tions, in an attempt to con­tain all the tal­ent on dis­play.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Con­cept of Musi­cal Har­mo­ny Explained in Five Lev­els of Dif­fi­cul­ty, Start­ing with a Child & End­ing with Her­bie Han­cock

See Ste­vie Won­der Play “Super­sti­tion” and Ban­ter with Grover on Sesame Street in 1973

Watch an Ani­mat­ed Visu­al­iza­tion of the Bass Line for the Motown Clas­sic, “Ain’t No Moun­tain High Enough”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  Her hus­band was grat­i­fied to see Jacob Col­lier shares his affin­i­ty for Crocs. No shame. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • ted says:

    I love it when a musi­cian shows the *nor­mal* way first and then shows what the artist did instead. This is so impor­tant, I wish there was more videos like this.

  • P.W. Fenton says:

    Thought you might like to know that a trum­pet play­er named Ray Mal­don­a­do (who has since passed away) actu­al­ly wrote the “shout cho­rus” as part of his job as horn arranger on that album. Ray was a friend of mine, and one day when I mar­veled at that pas­sage, he just dis­missed it as “just a stan­dard jazz riff”.

  • Thank you for adding val­ue, P.W. Ray was too mod­est by half, it appears. What a neat per­son to have known!

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