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Watch the vocal supergroup säje transform a Stevie Wonder song

The members of säje: Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage.
Lauren Desberg
The members of säje: Amanda Taylor, Sara Gazarek, Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage.

The first time Michael Jackson heard “I Can’t Help It,” he thought he was listening to the next unbeatable single from Stevie Wonder. “I was at home and he invited me to the studio,” Jackson recalled in a 1983 radio interview. “And he played me this song. I said, ‘I love it! What is it? When are you going to put it out?’ ‘I’m not putting it out,’ he said. ‘It’s for you.’ I said ‘Woo!’”

What came of this gift was a classic track from Jackson’s breakout 1979 album Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones. Even in demo form, the song elicits one of his most easeful and flowing vocal performances of the era — as well as the typically seamless song construction that Wonder had already made his trademark.

The song recently acquired another notable interpretation courtesy of the Los Angeles vocal foursome known as säje. It appears on the group’s self-titled debut album, which opened at No. 2 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and No. 3 on Jazz Albums when it was released last month. Now WRTI is proud to premiere a video of the song, featuring the four singers — Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage — joined by Bob Reynolds on soprano saxophone, Dawn Clement on piano, Anna Butterss on bass, Christian Euman on drums.

“I remember hearing Amanda’s arrangement of this iconic Stevie Wonder song in the beginning stages of this group,” Gazarek tells WRTI, by email. “It taught me what a total beast she is as a composer and contemporary vocal arranger. But hearing her solo at this video shoot really showed me what an incredible vocalist and interpreter she is. The rhythmic and melodic complexity, variety of textures and fun with which she buoyantly dances around the song is a marvel!”

The intricacies of the arrangement, which säje teased last year on social media, feel true to the musical language of Stevie Wonder, who wrote the song with Susaye Greene, a former Supreme, as he was working on his 1976 LP Songs in the Key of Life. As for the puppet in the video? That’s Chauncey, a säje mascot of sorts. Only time can tell whether he’ll be with the group when they appear at World Cafe Live on Nov. 14.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.