Paul Winter lives for two things, the environment and music, although he would say that they are the same thing. "For me, music implies something more than just the artistic combination of sounds," he patiently explains. "It has to do with a whole way of living, that's musical, that's harmonious, that's resonant with the earth, with the lineage of our species and the lineage of the whole planet as part of the universe."
That's become a comfortable cliche for many New Age artists who drape their music in chirping birds and babbling brooks and attach themselves to ecological themes. But Winter has been living this life for three decades, and at 60 he shows no signs of abating.
For the last two decades Winter has made his music on a farm in the rough hewn New England countryside of western Connecticut. He calls the barn where the Paul Winter Consort records, his "sonic temple." Walking back through some of the 120 acres, instruments seem to appear like magic. At a small wood slat bridge that crosses a brook Winter stops and says, "Well, we can walk over it or play it." Opting for playing, he pulls two dowels and two sticks out of the underbrush and begins striking the bridge like a marimba. "The prototype for this bridge is an amadinda, which is a log xylophone from Uganda," he explains.
World music has always been part of the Consort mix. In the mid-1960s, Winter made a conscious turn from the button-down be-bop and bossa nova jazz that he recorded on three albums for Columbia. Emerging out of jazz, 60s folk eclecticism and eastern influences via the Beatles and rock, the Consort was a group where you were as likely to hear darbuka and sitar as saxophone and guitar.
"The aspiration of the Consort was to see if we could achieve with the symphonic, jazz and ethnic instruments, that kind of soulful tapestry that was orchestral and that had improvising in which you didn't know where the blowing began and the writing stopped," he recalls.
Winter continues these themes today, wed with environmental concerns initiated in 1968 after hearing recordings of humpback whales. He recorded albums with those sounds and later made "Common Ground" (A&M), in which the Consort played along with of animal vocalizations. It wasn't the first such album, but it's one of the most influential, spawning a new age cliche in which many artists have taken an environmental CD of the month approach to making music.
The Paul Winter Consort has become synonymous with a form of music that merges acoustic instruments, gentle jazz improvisations, classical forms and environmental sounds. In the sounds of the Paul Winter Consort, you can hear music from around the world with sitars, Middle Eastern percussion, Russian singers, whales and wolves. He's been called the father of the new age, but Winter's roots stretch far back into the jazz of the 50s and 60s.
"I think of America as a big garden in which all kinds of things are allowed to grow or encouraged to grow and jazz has the great musical celebration of that garden and of that whole reality," he laughs, his eyes twinkling under a balding dome that's almost as much a signature as his music. "When you grow up with jazz, you are used to embracing different kinds of things. And the essence I think of an earth music like jazz is everything and everybody is welcome.
Paul Winter began the Consort in mid-1960s, but its identifying sound came together a few years later when musicians who would go on to become the group Oregon, joined up.
"When we joined Paul Winter he was playing everything from Elizabethan music to Brazilian music to adaptations of Baroque music and some adaptations of Bartok," recalls Oregon guitarist Ralph Towner, who wrote "Icarus," one of the signature Consort compositions. "It was kind of a collection, and it was not a style at the time."
"Paul Winter was very consciously trying to integrate the groovies from all of the great music traditions," says Oregon red player, Paul McCandless. "If you fussed around you could say 'Gee it's a little like this or it's a little like that.' but there was no direct correspondent to the influences."
The Consort is loved for its sweet harmonies and lyricism, but even today, improvisation in the jazz mode plays an important part in the group. "Oh it's wonderful," exudes longtime Consort cellist Eugene Friesen. "The free pieces are a time when suddenly your whole sense of listening is enhanced somewhat. Where you feel like you are in the driver's seat. You can play a loud note or a dischord note and shift the whole ensemble into another direction. So knowing that there are people listening to you with that kind of sensitivity. And having your own antenna out that far you can really take things and to influence them, it's exhilarating."
One of the more unusual aspects of the Consort has been the infusion of world music elements long before it became a buzzword. In the seventies, it was the late-Colin Walcott who played sitars, tablas, and Other world music percussion instruments.
"Colin came in and he played sitar and I thought he really knows that music and he has respect for it and he plays it well," reflects Winter. He doesn't consider himself a master by any means. But it was very musical and respectful and so we did that. But that kind of music takes lifetimes to learn and you have to be careful. In the same way I really haven't incorporated any American Indian elements much, except for a few drums here and there."
Paul Winter's made an uncategorizable niche for himself, which is why he's been lumped in with the new age movement. In the past, questions of New Age were parried with the response, "Newage, rhymes with sewage." But since winning a couple of New Age Grammy awards, he's more sanguine.
"The fact that there is a category in which our music can be placed, whether or not we
like the name of it not, that's an encouraging development," he says.
(Adapted from two Echoes features and an article in CD Review, 1994.)
1999 John Diliberto
"Turning Point Suite" centers the album, with a seamless journey that flows through organ drones, soprano saxophone calls, the searing voices of the Pokrovsky Singers, rattling bells and thundering gongs. It's an evocative, mystical work that places you right into the stream of Winter's performance.
Much of Solstice Live! is edited down from the longer and more visually oriented concert and occasionally suffers from some quick cutting that turns it into a pastiche, a blip of celtic ballads here, Russian choirs their and not enough of any of them. But there are some enticing snapshots like Noirin ni Riain's haunting duet with cellist Eugene Friesen on the traditional Irish lament, "Fog on the Hill," an all too brief duet between Winter and frame drummer Glen Velez.
Paul Winter can become cloying with his exuberant one-world music philosophy, like a
world-music soundtrack to Disney's "It's a Small World Afterall" exhibit. But within this
cathedral of music, he makes it work.
Over the course of his nearly 40 years of recordings, soprano saxophonist Paul Winter has explored a world of sound, literally. His group, the Paul Winter Consort was created as an umbrella for Renaissance airs, jazz improvisation, Indian rhythms and classical repertoire in an elegant, always melodic sound. Greatest Hits spans the years from 1972 and, in a bit of hubris, the future. A couple of his "greatest hits" haven't even been released yet.
Greatest Hits covers a career remarkable for its all-embracing scope. The sambas of guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves have been a favorite of the saxophonist, and he re-arranges the Winter Consort theme song,"Icarus," a la Brazil. The frame drumming of Glen Velez percolates through a couple of tunes from Canyon and original Riverdance piper, Davy Spillane guests on a pair of pieces from the forthcoming Celtic Solstice album. Winter plays duets with wolves, Grand Canyon echoes, humpback whales and Paul Halley's pipe organ.
Currently available as a double CD, it's the second disc that contains many of Winter's classic tunes in their original incarnation, including the aforementioned "Icarus." It also samples music from other artists on Paul Winter's Living Music label. In addition, this is an enhanced CD with a slide show history of Paul Winter including voice clips, music and propaganda for Winter's environmental concerns and music.
These may not be "greatest hits," but this is a great survey from one of the important
musician in modern instrumental music.