Good And Slow Stevie Wonder Is In No Hurry When It Comes To Music
Speed is not among Stevie Wonder’s many virtues.
His latest album, “Conversation Peace,” is due out on Feb. 28. That’s his first release since the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” in 1991 - but it’s really the first proper album of new Stevie Wonder music since “Characters” was released more than seven years ago.
That’s hardly a prodigious output. And Wonder doesn’t care. Still with Motown after almost 32 years of recording, he remains far more interested in quality than quantity.
In his autobiography, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. writes that he once complained to Wonder about the lengthy delay between his albums. Wonder’s response; “Yeah … but when I do give you albums, you know they’re gonna be good!” He feels the same way now.
“I think obviously it’s good to have a record come out,” Wonder, 44, says by telephone from Ghana before his performance at the PanFest there. “But I just can’t work with some ‘You gotta pump it out’ mentality. The bottom line to me is that it’s good - very, very good.”
But “Conversation Peace” is just one of the good things happening in Wonder’s life these days. As a new year dawns, the multifaceted musician, songwriter and humanitarian - who’s earned a genius reputation with a body of work that’s sumptuously crafted and often groundbreaking - is in a good place both personally and creatively.
He’s in love, for starters. “I’m not even gonna talk about that!” Wonder says with a laugh, though the father of four admits he’s “just itching” to wed again.
“I feel pretty good about things,” says Wonder, who was born Steveland Morris in Saginaw, Mich. “I can’t say to you that I’m happy with the way the world is. I’m not. But now I’m willing to do whatever I can to get things right in my life as well as to help anyone who wants me to help them.”
These days Wonder is particularly active in anti-hunger and antihandgun campaigns. But on “Conversation Peace” there’s a noticeable turn inward, revealing a tougher-minded Wonder within its lively, meticulously sculpted pop and R&B; stylings. He’s still an idealist and optimist - and mostly a seeker of peaceful solutions - but the new songs display the edge of someone whose patience is beginning to strain.
There’s one song, “My Love is With You,” in which Wonder sings from the point of view of someone who’s been killed; the inspiration was the shooting deaths of two people he knew, one a Christian entertainer, the other, one of his security guards. The song is both melancholy and sweet; the underlying message is that “a part of them will live on forever, through the people that knew them.”
Wonder says his music isn’t meant for problem solving, though.
“I can’t say I’m going to make this record to make a statement to the world,” he says. “I just say I’m going to make this record to give, because I want to give my love to the world. If my love is also talking on some constructive criticisms or whatever, so be it. If it’s sharing with people experiences I’ve had, then so be it.
“That’s what I have to offer.”
Wonder plans to offer plenty during the coming years. He has in mind a gospel album, a jazz album and possibly a Portuguese album.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with just doing the typical thing,” Wonder says. “But I want to make sure that whatever I do is good, you know? Like with the jazz album, I’m a great fan of Oscar Peterson, or Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock. I would want to at least come out with some stuff that’s as great as they’ve done.
“It’s the same with a gospel or inspirational album. My most favorite album is Aretha’s album she did some years ago, ‘Amazing Grace.’ That’s what I aspire to.”
At the moment, however, Wonder is mostly working on recasting his own work. His “Natural Wonder” show is an orchestrated presentation of his music, from the earliest Motown hits to songs from “Conversation Peace” and even some songs that have not yet been released.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, transferring musical arrangements once performed by synthesizers to a full-scale orchestra.
“Some of it will be just me at the piano, some of it will be me with just the band, some just with horns, some with the symphony orchestra,” Wonder explains. “We’ll mix it up and do whatever is appropriate for the songs.”