Natural Wonder

It's a measure of Stevie Wonder's place in our collective unconscious that merely saying his name immediately conjures up images of Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live impression — the neck arched upward, the body swaying, the braids flying. To many listeners, especially during the past decade, when hip-hop so dominated the black-music scene, Wonder has been increasingly perceived as more of a soul-music icon than an authentic presence. Which is precisely what makes Natural Wonder — a double CD recorded live with a 30-piece symphony orchestra at concerts in Osaka, Japan, and Tel Aviv, Israel, earlier this year — such an important and revelatory statement. Because throughout the course of this 25-year retrospective, Wonder repeatedly demonstrates the remarkable extent to which his distinctive inner visions have been ahead of the musical curve.

Given Wonder's exhaustive body of work, one is prone to take for granted such breakthrough recordings as the funk 'n' rolling "Superstition" ('72), the R&Bjiving "I Wish" ('76) and the reggae-bopping "Master Blaster (Jammin')," from 1980. In retrospect it's clear that when Wonder sang, "Music is a world within itself with a language that we all understand" on "Sir Duke," his '76 tribute to Duke Ellington, his kaleidoscopic, pancultural musical philosophy was already firmly in place. Listening to his wordless, soaring East-meets-West vocal gymnastics on "Love's in Need of Love Today," the circular gospel blues of "Higher Ground" or the nightmarish urban landscape depicted in "Village Ghetto Land," one hears an artistic wellspring from which such artists as Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Arrested Development and Coolio have all drawn sustenance and inspiration.

If one were forced to pick a solitary track here to represent what Wonder is all about, it would be "Ribbon in the Sky," originally recorded in 1982. The song begins as a straightforward pop ballad with just voice and piano, glides smoothly into a jazz-tinged instrumental break in which Wonder trades harmonica riffs with his sax player and ends up swinging over a churning Latin beat. Such is the seamless, eclectic genius of Stevie Wonder.

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