Stevie Wonder seemed to have suffered a little writers blocks following his (subjectively) wonderful 1987 album Characters. Aside from performing the soundtrack to the Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever in 1991,it seemed as if Wonder would continue his infrequency of releases in the 90’s as he had in the 80’s. When President Jerry John Rawlings invited Wonder to spend his weeks in the African nation of Ghana,Wonder wrote 40 new songs. He also stated the artist formerly know as Prince “helped him to see music again” in the liner notes to the 1995 album that came out of Wonder’s African visit: Conversation Peace.
Personally I have a vivid memory of hearing a new reggae styled song by Stevie Wonder called “Take The Time Out” used during the 1994 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to encouraging people to give food to the needy. It was a comforting reminder of Wonder’s ever present humanitarianism.And his new album finally came out in January of the following year. Took me a year or so to really give it a good listen. And a decade or so more to begin singling out my personal favorites songs from the last Stevie Wonder album of the 20th century. One of the strongest for me is a song called “Sensuous Whisper”.
Wonder gets the song rolling with a hi hat heavy drum swing and a shuffling bass with an Arabic type tone. Then he kicks into a funky chromatic walkdown on piano. This consists of the basic body of the song. Stephanie Andrew’s sexually charged grunts provide a vital percussive element as the sax of Branford Marsalis and trumpet of Terrence Blanchard provide unison horn breaks on the vocal changes. Wonder swings and scats the lyrics on the refrain,while Anita Baker sings the song title chorus as the back-round with Wonder’s call and response vocal lead.
The bridge of the song features Wonder singing a harmonically complex set of notes that I personally couldn’t begin to describe-scaling up and down between each phrase. He backs himself up with the same instrumentation as the rest of the song that,along with the horn charts,improvise strongly on the chordal changes he’s making throughout. After this,the song returns to the drum/bass intro before seguing back into the chorus of the song. This chorus repeats itself over and over again-with Wonder scatting the vocals more and more until the song itself just comes to an abrupt stop.
Stevie Wonder was always someone my family and I recognized as having a strong jazz influence-from his 1963 instrumental debut album to his 1991 song “Make Sure Your Sure”. This song not only found him collaborating up front with jazzy players and jazz derived singers,but also embracing the funkified jazz/hip-hop hybrid that the Native Tongues groups like Tribe Called Quest and even Miles Davis himself had started to embrace. So Wonder was not only heavily embracing jazz here,but showcasing it’s possibilities for the newer hip-hop informed style of funky soul.
Filed under 'Conversation Peace', 1990s, Anita Baker, bass guitar, Branford Marsalis, chromatic walkdown, drums, funky soul, hip-hop jazz, horns, piano, Saxophone, soul jazz, Stephanie Andrews, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, Terrence Blanchard, trumpet
Ever since he unleashed his magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, Stevie Wonder’s musical output has been extremely erratic. During the 1980’s his admirers were now waiting several years between his new album releases. This culminated in the decade long absence after his 1995 album Conversation Peace. As the 1990’s dragged on with no new Stevie Wonder albums,I personally assumed by the turn of the century that he was basically retired from recording. At the time it seemed that some of the implicit edicts of rock writers of the 90’s declared that Wonder would not be allowed to do anything contemporary unless it fit with the hip-hop based soul/funk sub-genres popular at the time.
Stevie Wonder was always an artist who grew musically within the context of his own established compositional and rhythmic framework. And when that rhythm stiffened during the hip-hop era? I sadly assumed Stevie’s “place in the sun” had been co-opted. While I found much to enjoy in this modern sound as well? Stevie’s approach was starting to seem more and more important to popular music’s stalled progression at the time. After many false starts,his new studio album A Time 2 Love finally arrived in September 2005. And the song on the album that made the most immediate impact on me was “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”.
Starting out with a tumbling rhythm,Stevie sings about “such a happy couple” whose relationship begins to disintegrate due to the fires of suspicion that begins to build up. Lyrically the rest of the song plays out the declaration of trust issues,and the fact that both parties should tell each other about their other suitors who are “just using them like a toy”. The refrains of the songs all feature that tumbling drum sound of the intro-making a very creative use of sampling as the Hannah Barbara cartoon-style percussive effect (used when a character would start running) shows up as a rhythmic element before the chorus comes in.
This chorus showcases Stevie’s trademark,grinding bass synthesizer playing very bluesy “Superstition”-style parts accentuated by bouncy,dancing horn charts and a choir of multi tracked Wonder vocals chanting “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” repeatedly-as if somewhat in shock of the affairs occurring out of the lyrics. The second refrain of the song,which also closes out the song,is the part where Wonder provides the solution to the lyrics dilemma, features Stevie’s well known slogging drum style punctuated only by demanding horn blasts and ending with a rather boastful chant of “WHO-HA,WHO WHO-HA!”.
Some online articles I’ve seen in passing seem to have suggested this song was based on a leftover jam from Stevie’s massive 1972 production that resulted in the albums Music Of My Mind and Talking Book. Indeed it is filled to the brim with instrumental and melodic references to both “Superstition” and “Sweet Little Girl”. So on that level? This song marks a full on return to strong live band type horn funk of Stevie’s early/mid 70’s heyday and a break from feeling as if he had to be musically “new” on any particular level. Lyrically this song could not be more on time. While romantic discord and betrayal had been a big part of Stevie’s lyricism through his salad days,it was on a more individual level.
The early 2000’s represented an American pop culture built around what many refer to as “trash TV”. So called reality shows that seemed to function only for the purpose of breaking up romantic relationships for the purpose of winning a contest had become convention. So had lie detector based talk shows regarding paternity tests. Stevie was setting the couple in this song within a modern sociological framework that seemed to be nothing but cynical and suspicious about romance. And through the happily yet trepidatiously melodic funk of this song,advises honesty between people over any romantic types of conspiracy theories. It is romantically inclined funk with a modern message-with its “heard it through the grapevine” blues style lyrics and melody firmly updated for that contemporary ethic. And from where I stand? Just what Stevie’s inner Doctor Funkestein ordered!