As Stevie Wonder’s classic album Songs in the Key of Life turns 40, synth master Jason Miles (Michael Jackson, Miles Davis) revisits “Stevie’s magic period” and takes a close look at five favorite songs.
Songs in the Key of Life is an incredible achievement, and I love this album. I still have the vinyl in excellent condition. Stevie Wonder was an artist at the height of his powers on so many levels, from writing and performance to production. The freedom to make an album like that was and remains encouraging: Stevie had a great track record by then, so he could make exactly the album he wanted to.
1. "Sir Duke"
This is such perfection. During the verse different parts are layered to interweave with the groove of the drums. I love how tight the kick drum is. The horns add such a great contrast to the other instruments. It is a great melody and everything is built around that.
Every great artist from the Beatles to Hendrix to Stevie had a number of years when their creativity was extremely high and everything was clicking. This was Stevie’s magic period.
2. "I Wish"
The superb melody and the backup line with the bass and guitar playing in unison both move the track along. The Rhodes also has such a warm vibe in the track. Again Stevie adds horns to contrast the funky lines of the guitar and bass. The songwriting is so perfect – melody, lyrics, everything.
When he stopped being Little Stevie Wonder and became Stevie Wonder and released Talking Book, the growth spurt he had was just incredible. He was also aware that the country was changing and that was a part of the message with the songs he was writing. His gift for melody is unparalleled and rates as high as any composer in modern history. He was also young enough to be very curious about technology and how it would help his music. He was a part of the new sound of R’n’B and was one of the architects who help create it. He was very lucky as well to be around amazing writers and arrangers at Motown such as Holland, Dozier and Holland or Paul Riser, and exceptional musicians like the Funk Brothers. When you have that brilliance around you, you have a choice: pay attention or don’t.
3. "Summer Soft"
The build on this song, the way it transitions from the verse to the chorus, is just amazing: he builds it beautifully then breaks it down again into the verse. I love the piano – it keeps the track moving without cluttering it up. There are lots of other instruments but none of them get in the way.
When I listen to my favorite songs from this album together, they are incredibly close to perfection: very strong melody and lyrics, impeccable arrangements and productions, and the performances are just so soulful with a great flow. He expanded and used horns, tight back ground vocals and great grooves.
4. "Isn’t She Lovely"
It starts out with great tunings of the drums. I also like how the tambourine finds its important space in the track. This is such a hard groove to write something great over. The Rhodes again just fills up a nice space. The melody and lyrics are perfect: you don’t need to know any of the words, just “Isn’t she lovely" – that’s amazing.
5. "Another Star"
I love how it flips everything to a Latin vibe. He changes to acoustic piano and it just adds a great expression to the track. I also like how he uses the open and closed hi-hats to accent different parts. It’s also like how the background (“na na na”) actually becomes the hook.
If there’s one thing I learned from this album, it’s that excellence always has to be achieved on every level. The possibilities I heard inspired me. Stevie was using new instruments like the moog for bass and lead lines, or the Fender Rhodes Suitcase which really fit into the music he was doing. He was a total badass on the D6 Clavinet – he made it sing. When I heard his music from this period, I felt inspired to study those keyboard instruments and create my own sound on them.
For more keyboard goodness from Jason Miles, watch him check out the Element 2.0 virtual analog synth.