In what she said was the first public performance of the songs on Tales Of Wonder,
Nnenna Freelon explained that she has been listening to Stevie Wonder’s music most of her life. Furthermore, she explained that she didn’t appreciate the depth of his talent until she started to compile the list of songs for the CD. Freelon was surprised to learn, as was most of the audience, that Stevie Wonder had a hand in writing "The Tears Of A Clown," even though Smokey Robinson recorded it. In the liner notes, Freelon quotes from some of her favorite Stevie Wonder lyrics, and all of the songs chosen to represent his music are those with personal meaning for Freelon. While those songs do cover the subjects of love and joy for the most part, rather than the anger of "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" or "Living For The City," Freelon includes a sufficient breadth of Wonder’s compositional career to appreciate his growth, creativity and consistency. For example, even an early tune like "The Tears Of A Clown" includes the "hook," the irony, the sentimentality and the originality of some of his later songs.
Appropriately, Freelon unabashedly interprets Wonder’s music with funk and definite leanings toward R&B in addition to jazz. But as she said during the concert, she has no fear of offending the "jazz police." For, as one of the most important contemporary songwriters, Stevie Wonder’s music can’t be confined by jazz, although jazz certainly is one element of it. Rather, it is defined by soul--the soulfulness of his childhood in Detroit. Thus, Freelon works not with the incontestable jazz giants like Herbie Hancock on Maiden Voyage
or Ed Thigpen on Soulcall,
but rather with a group that has a definite history with R&B, such as Gerald Veasley, who is as apt to use electric bass on the CD as acoustic.
Freelon freely rearranges some of the tunes like "Overjoyed" to fit her decided approach, this song being one of 6/8 sultriness and accented by a snapping back beat. And yet, "Lately" proceeds pleasingly as a straight-ahead ballad, propelled by a slightly Latin beat with clip-clopping percussion, a glistening chorded piano overlay and irresistible shakére shaking. As a result we can appreciate the song’s seamless merging of lyrics with melody, not to mention its direct appeal to the listener’s emotions.
Even though Freelon has been recording for a mere ten years, having devoted a considerable number of years to raising a family, the growing impression emerges that hers is a voice that’s like no other. She wraps it around a phrase or fills what would be a rest with a concluding musical thought. After all, who would be another singer whose voice would be similar?
Some of the ways that Freelon approaches a song are becoming hers alone such as the blue notes of transitory pitch or words transforming into hums or ever-so-slight variances from melody.
Not intimidated by the imposed-upon-her urgency to be a "jazz singer" nor timid about expressing her beliefs in music, Freelon has found that music brings people together and leads people to spiritual understanding. Thus, her role as spokesperson for Partners In Education is apt, for she is able to merge her concern for the education of children with the motivational benefits of music. Indeed, before her evening concert, Freelon spent the afternoon at a local inner-city high school, where she discussed with students the importance of education and inspired them to sing along with her.
It seems that this is the outreach that is consistent with Stevie Wonder’s music. Extroverted and joyous, he always seems to wonder at the human condition and to encourage its improvement. Freelon sensed this in his music since she began singing his songs at the age of 12. Nnenna Freelon finally has brought together, not a tribute, but a celebration of Stevland Morris that he richly deserves.