Wednesday, 4 October 2017
The early years of the Paul Winter Consort from 1968 to 1972's Icarus
Well how many times have I had to admit in the past few years to being shocked at discovering an artist I never even knew existed that seemed just custom made for me. When I was researching a song I had heard called Wolf Eyes, which has the most stunningly perfect musical description of a wolf that could ever be achieved (track appears below), I found from the discography that a bunch of earlier albums seemed to be of high interest. The (Ralph Towner) composition Icarus in particular I know was covered by quite a few other artists, so it was familiar to me.
Let's start with the official bio:
Paul Winter (born August 31, 1939 in Altoona, Pennsylvania) is an American saxophonist (alto and soprano saxophone), and is a seven-time Grammy Award winner. He is the son of violinist Paul Winter. At Northwestern University in Chicago, Winter formed The Paul Winter Sextet. In 1961 the group won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival and was signed by Columbia Records. The Sextet recorded a total of five albums in the early and mid 1960s and were among the first to blend Brazilian bossa nova and folk music with their jazz. In 1962 the band toured Latin America as cultural ambassadors for the United States State Department, playing 160 concerts in 23 countries. The Sextet was also the first jazz band to perform at the White House...
Winter formed a new group, The Winter Consort, in 1967. They were signed by A&M Records and released their first, self-titled album the following year. Since then Winter has released a long string of successful albums blending jazz, folk, world and new age music with the Consort, as a solo artist, or in collaboration with various members of the Consort. The Consort's 1972 release, "Icarus", was produced by George Martin and remains one of their best known and most recognized works. In 1980 Winter started his own Living Music label, which has released his works and the works of many musicians who have been associated with him. Around that time his group was renamed The Paul Winter Consort.
Note the involvement of George Martin in what is inarguably his masterpiece, 1972's Icarus. If you look at the details of that one here, you can see quite a few compositions are from Ralph Towner. Which explains a lot, doesn't it? But let's start at the beginning and then move on to the middle, as Lewis Carroll used to say.
The first album starts off with a bang, with its mix of chamber music, classical composition (like Oregon as usual) mixed with acoustic ethnic elements, guitars, strings, and saxes. Some stunning compositions appear early on, like the Choral Dorien (not clear who composer is). Unfortunately the second release, Something in the Wind, from 1969, is marred by quite a few 'karaoke' cover versions of pop songs (e.g. the horrific Mr. Bojangles-- someone please stop his jangling) but here and there appear the shiniest pearls, like a Charles Ives composition called The Indians. I don't think I could offhand name another rock/fusion/jazz record that has Ch. Ives on it, and usually that's a good thing. But here, his appearance is a sublime thing, with the chamber instrumentation which I think includes a graceful flute plus varied reeds absolutely raining beautiful music from heaven on down.
But by 1970 we get to masterpiece level material, with The Road and the aforementioned Icarus. Here I get the same feeling as back when we found the Evergreen State records just over two years ago (does everyone still remember those?)-- an embarrassment of beautiful riches. Endless great arrangement, interesting tonalities and textures, unusual solos from oboes or clarinets, dramatic phrases, build-ups to spiritual joy, and, because the basis for most of the songs is acoustic guitar plus bass and drums, everything has that warm rooted in rock feeling to it. And, setting aside George Martin, look at the group of musicians on Icarus: Colin Walcott, Ralph of course, Paul McCandless-- ridiculous, right?
So, shock number one. There is a vocals track (the only one), called Silence of the Candle, shock number two, it was written (and is sung) by Towner. On youtube. Needless to say it's just gorgeous. (Edited: Usual comments, about how come this song isn't played on the radio, instead of the usual, bla bla bla.)
Today my sample is another Towner track, called Chehalis and Other Voices:
Because it's so perfectly written, with the shocking, very Towneresque, guitar intro, with the woodwind arrangement introducing the chords, with a harp fiddling about in the right channel, the strings appearing like Nazaruk's forest awakens, throughout, the textures are just endlessly interesting, and the guitar never escapes its atonal speech, which is incomprehensibly perfectly listenable. Did I say interesting? I meant ridiculous-- in terms of the complexity of its beauty, as if Van Gogh was Einstein, or vice-versa. Just that song alone was worth the price of admission to this LP (which was free btw) but the entire thing is made up of similar stuff. I for sure had respect for Towner in the past, but it's doubled now, thanks to these Paul Winter releases.
After Icarus though, the Consort just disappeared, with Paul himself not reappearing until 6 years later with much much less complex music, in keeping with our progression deeper into the 70s. (Anyone know what happened in the intervening years?)
So I found out it was the album Common Ground (which overall is uncomfortably close to that nasty incense stink of new age) that had my favourite lupine song, 1978's Wolf Eyes:
This song is amazing on so many levels, if you've ever heard the howling of a wolf in real life. The melancholy sound of it, the way the (?) English horn with mute plays it so realistically, later using the howl to create an actual melody, the assistance of the cellos and strings in evoking the feeling of a lonely wintery snow-covered landscape, it's so absolutely perfect. How does music, as something so abstract, really, rooted in math, create such intense emotion? To me that's the real magic of it, we can easily understand the emotion in poetry, in novels, drama, visual arts, but in music it's so utterly mysterious. Note that composition is credited to Paul Winter, David Darling (wrote other songs on others of these records), and a wolf, Timber Wolf. Thanks wolf.
But don't be disappointed with the new age, listen to the whole album, because there are still several tracks worth hearing, including this remarkable vocal song called Lay Down Your Burden (composed by the team of Colleen Crangle, Marilyn Wetzler, & Susan Osborn) which, again approaches new-ageyness but never quite falls into its torturing and slow motion deadly quicksand:
Now let's try to swim very slowly to escape that awful quicksand-- oh no, we moved too fast, we're sinking, we're sinking, help, help!! someone please throw us a rope just like on Get Smart... agent 99? where are you?
And that's it. After this one, the remainder of the LPs, and there were incredibly many of them, don't have a whole lot of flotation devices for the progressive fan to cling on to.
But boy was that a wonderful decade for Paul Winter and his Consort-- music at its finest, in its finest hour.