Flush with the groundbreaking journey and incredible, impactful success she had as runner up on Season 21 of “The Voice,” Wendy Moten – whose versatile career has earned her, ironically enough, the music industry’s affectionate nickname “The Voice” – could have chosen any number of possible new solo projects to launch the latest phase of her solo career.
Her wonderfully fitting decision to create a rousing gospel, R&B and urban jazz driven spin on Stevie Wonder’s iconic anthem “As” is not simply inspiring and triumphant on a musical level. In many ways, for the singer, it feels like coming home.
First, the single marks Wendy’s reconnection with Woodward Avenue Records, the independent contemporary jazz label that in 2014 released Timeless: Wendy Moten Sings Richard Whiting, one of the singers greatest albums which marked her first recording as an interpreter of jazz standards. Second, the track finds the Memphis native vibing dynamically with a powerful young ensemble of powerhouse young musicians (four piece rhythm section, three horns, two backing vocalists) from her hometown who now live in L.A., many whom have worked with Stevie Wonder and know the nuances of this classic album cut intimately.
Finally, “As” brings Wendy back to a special time in her career, when a handful of years after releasing her self-titled major label solo debut, she was a first call duet partner for pop and jazz greats. The most significant of these was an urban jazz/R&B crossover version of another Stevie Wonder gem, “All I Do,” with saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
Because it’s Wendy, perhaps the only contemporary artist who could so effortlessly follow a Richard Whiting album with a hipster set of country standards (I’ve Got You Covered, 2020), we can never be sure where her muse will take her next. Produced by Lew Laing, Wendy and bassist Brandon Brown, her version of “As” makes an exciting case for a renewed solo career in R&B and urban jazz, the worlds that marked the early phases of her eclectic, every-evolving career.
The track begins with Kyle Bolden’s hypnotic solo rhythm guitar, then kicks off into a warm, soulful blend of Lynette Williams’ simmering B-3 and rising horns as Wendy scats a colorful intro. She delivers the uplifting romantic verses faithfully to Stevie’s version, driven by a mid-tempo groove before the brassy gospel fire catches and vocalists Vicki Hampton and Robert Bailey take the metaphoric words of the chorus to soaring heights, with Wendy responding “Always’ like an affirmative “Amen” after each line. Building emotion as the groove and horns heat up, Wendy unleashes the full rangy power of her voice on the funkier, second verse, which features the harmony vocals coming in a few bars before the second chorus.
Woodward Avenue is releasing both a snappy radio edit and a freewheeling six and a half minute version, which allows for more of Wendy’s dazzling vocal improvisations (including the repeat of “Loving You” after each line of the third chorus), extended instrumental passages (including more of Williams’ sumptuous B-3 jamming), Stevie’s super poetic, multi-generational third verse and the band cutting loose on the lengthy outro.
Though over time, people have interpreted “As” as a song about a lover serenading his/her beloved, many read into it a more spiritual message of God’s unconditional love for mankind and a feeling that even as life has its times of struggle, love is the one enduring thing that offers hope. It’s a timeless message delivered majestically by a singer just reaching her prime. Whatever surprises the future may hold for Wendy, aka “The Voice” that rocked “The Voice,” her latest triumph with “As” marks a buoyant, uplifting start to her next chapter. – Jonathan Widran