Stevie Wonder broke a three-year silence in 1979 with his flawed but often magnificent double album, "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants." He went beyond his usual commercial soul efforts to attempt elaborate synthesizer composition. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. But the ambition was impressive.
Wonder followed the album with a live tour that produced music far better than anything he's ever put on record. Now Wonder, whose new album, "Hotter Than July," will appear in early October, has returned to a more conventional style as a songwriter for Smokey Robinson, Jermaine Jackson and Roberta Flack.
The most ambitious composition on Robinson's remarkable comeback album, "Warm Thoughts" (Tamla T8-367M1), was "Melody Man," a collaboration between Wonder and Robinson. It was a rare treat, for Wonder's tricky changes and synthesizer arrangements are as unusual in soul music as Robinson's extended metaphors.
Jermaine Jackson's new album, "Let's Get Serious" (Motown M7-928R1), contains three new Wonder compositions, including the title tune -- now an infectious hit single. On those three tunes, Wonder took over completely: He composed them, arranged them, produced them with his own band, played all the keyboards and even sang harmonies. For all practical purposes, those three cuts are Stevie Wonder records with guest vocals by Jermaine Jackson.
Even for Stevie Wonder records, they're very good. "Let's Get Serious" uses Wonder's familiar device of repeating one line over and over while the instruments underneath build a crescendo of irresistible power. On the album's eight-minute version, Wonder's synthesizer, Ben Bridges' guitar and Larry Gittens' trumpet solo freely over the dance beat till they crest triumphantly. Jackson duplicates Wonder's smooth tenor and melodic growl as the song progresses.
The other two Wonder compositions are romatic ballads reminiscent of "All in Love is Fair and "Golden Lady." Jackson sings them with a warm understatement, and Wonder surrounds him with breathy harmonies.
Four originals by Jackson and his various collaborators fill out the album.
They bear an obvious Wonder influence, though they emphasize a heavy funk beat more than Wonder's tunes do. Jackson's own songs may be less accomplished than Wonder's productions, but they are far more ambitious than anything Jackson's brothers are doing.
Roberta Flack's new album includes two new Wonder compositions. "Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway" (Atlantic SD 16013) is dedicated to Hathaway and includes two duets that Hathaway recorded with Flack just before he committed suicide last year.
Their duet on Wonder's "You Are My Heaven" is the album's indisputable highlight. The song itself has a gorgeous melody wrapped lightly around a strong mid-tempo beat. Hathaway sings with an earnest gutsiness that Flack counters with an ethereal soprano.
Unfortunately, the rest of the record is much less appealing. The other Flack-Hathaway duet is wasted on the formula funk of "Back Together Again." The other Wonder composition, "Don't Make Me Wait Too Long," is sabotaged by Flack's melodramatic vocal and the heavy-handed production by Flack and Eric Mercury. Three of the other songs betray Flack's recent weakness for MOR pop schlock.
"Syreeta" (Tamla T7-372R1) is also strongly influenced by Wonder, Syreeta Wright is Wonder's exwife and still his occasional lyricist. Her new record features two of her old and best collaborations with Wonder: "Blame It on the Sun" and "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered."
Instead of treating the songs as her own personal creations (which they are), she treats them as old standards -- which they also are. Her strong flexible voice leaps off the familiar melody lines into freewheeling improvisations as if she were a jazz singer using Wonder's songs as an excuse for her own vocal inventions.
The rest of "Syreeta" is a bit inconsistent, probably resulting from the five different producers who split the 10 songs among themselves. Four of the cuts are simple-minded disco-funk exercises. "Let Me Be the One" by Bill Withers and Skip Scarborough, through, is a supple love song that stands up well to the two Wonder songs.
If you could take the eight Stevie Wonder songs off the albums by Robinson, Jackson, Flack and Wright, you'd have a new Stevie Wonder album -- and possibly the best soul record of the year.