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How Paul Winter Created a Music Beyond Category
Paul Winter has launched at least 5 genre revolutions over the course of a career still going strong at age 82—but he's given us much more than just music
This is the sixth in my series of profiles of innovators I call Visionaries of Sound—those rare individuals who celebrate music as much more than entertainment or even art, but as something genuinely transformative in human life.
Many of these individuals are little-known or, in some instances, completely left out of music history books. Even when they have achieved a degree of fame, as in the current instance, written accounts of their work rarely grapple with the full cultural signficiance of their contributions. In each case, these individuals have served as important touchstones for me over the course of many years, shaping my concepts and priorities about music.
In previous installments, I’ve written about Charles Kellogg, Hermeto Pascoal, Raymond Scott, Layne Redmond, and Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Below I look at the world-embracing music of Paul Winter.
By the way, Winter—aptly named in this regard—will be live-streaming his annual celebration of the Winter Solstice at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on December 17. He has been performing this annual event every year since 1980. Consider it a more mind-expanding holiday alternative to the Nutracker or streaming Die Hard on Netflix. You can learn more about Winter’s event at this link.
I’ll soon share my Q&A with Paul Winter, but below I’ve sketched out a profile of his career, and tried to make a case for his central role in the evolution of creative music over the last six decades.
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How Paul Winter Created a Music Beyond Category
by Ted Gioia
Just a few days ago, a major music magazine announced the “Quiet, Forceful Return of Ambient Jazz.” The writer had a good point—a host of high-profile recent albums have explored the capacities of jazz in shaping soundscapes and creating a kind of aural ecosystem for both performer and audience.
You can see this trend everywhere. Consider the case of avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who has reinvented himself in his 80s as an ambient musician with his touted Promises album, a collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. But you don’t need a major orchestra to conduct a dialogue with ambient or natural sounds—check out this musician who recently got 20 million YouTube views by playing a duet with an industrial pipe. Just this morning, a Twitter friend alerted me to a hip new recording featuring a bass clarinetist performing inside a box girder bridge.
But I’m surprised that Paul Winter doesn’t get mentioned in the various articles and pronouncements about this new thing in jazz. No one in the music world has been more ambitious or creative in exploring the ways musicians can create soundscapes in dialogue with the surrounding world. And he has been doing it for decades, all over the globe, from Siberia to the Grand Canyon. His website notes that Winter has “traveled on rafts, dog sleds, mules, kayaks, tug-boats and Land Rovers” to engage in this lifelong project of musical outreach.
At age 82, Paul Winter is still going strong. And you would be hard pressed to find a living musician who has covered more territory—both literally and metaphorically—over the course of his career.
He’s found a huge audience for his music, but critics often seem at a loss how to deal with him. His absence from this recent article is no isolated matter. He rarely gets credit for the full range of his impact on our musical culture. But Winter himself must bear part of the blame for this—because it’s hard to keep track of, let alone assess on any deep level, an artist who has done so many things in so many ways.
I discovered jazz midway through high school, and my early listening in the genre was scattershot—mostly driven by what albums my local public library held in its tiny collection, supplemented by what I acquired on the cheap at garage sales and swap meets. Almost any jazz album that was available for purchase under one dollar usually ended up in my bedroom. There weren’t many, but I cherished each one.
That’s how I got acquainted with saxophonist Paul Winter. I hardly recognized the name when I purchased Jazz Premiere: Washington by the Paul Winter Sextet, and would never have paid full list price for a recording of unfamiliar musicians. But the price was right, and the LP entered my collection at a time when I owned fewer than 10 jazz albums.
It’s hard to convey to a young fan raised in an age of streaming how much we listened over and over again to the same records back in those days. Most of us couldn’t afford to buy many albums, so the ones we did own got lots of use. Even records I didn’t enjoy got second chances—and third chances and fourth chances, and so on—to win my allegiance. To reject an album after you bought it was like writing off a capital investment.
But this Paul Winter album earned my loyalty from the start. It captured the excitement, smartness, and spontaneity that had drawn me to jazz in the first place. As it turned out, this was the saxophonist’s third album, recorded when he was just 22 years old. In fact, Winter’s recording contract came his way when his Northwestern college band won a competition with Dizzy Gillespie and John Hammond as judges. Mr. Hammond, a famous music talent scout for Columbia Records, soon came knocking on Winter’s door with the offer of a major label deal—at almost the same moment that Hammond was also recruiting Bob Dylan to Columbia.
This was an opportunity too good to pass up. At that time, Winter was planning to attend law school at the University of Virginia, but now found himself signed to the most powerful record label in the world and enlisted by the US State Department to undertake a goodwill tour of Latin America.
“Should I describe Paul Winter as a progenitor of the ECM sound? Or a pioneer of world music? Or inventor of Earth Music? Or as the favorite protege of George Martin? Or as global ambassador for musical dialogue across all borders and boundaries?
“In truth, he is all these things and more.”
“Enthusiasm was John’s middle name,” Winter told me in our interview. But that didn’t mean that sessions with him were without difficulties. “Recording under his wing was challenging. John came from those early decades of recording—of the 30s and 40s. In those days a band would come into the studio to simply play what they played on the road. There would be one mic in the middle of the room and they would usually do one take of each piece.
“By the late 50s, stereo had come in, so we did have, for our first album, two tracks; and then I think three-track had come in for some of our later sessions. But the approach of doing an entire album in one three-hour session prevailed. The days of using the studio as a creative forum were still years off for us.”
But Winter learned even more on the road, during those formative years, than in the studio. Few artists in the history of the music have covered more ground at such an early stage in their careers—and this would remain a trademark of Winter’s approach to music-making for decades to come. The State Department tour included 160 concerts in 61 cities in 23 countries, as well as a performance at the White House during the Kennedy administration.
“Our travels opened wide the doors to the great smorgasbord of other traditions in the world,” Winter told me during our interview. “So I came home from six months in Latin America a fervent freshman in a more universal university.”
The term world music didn’t exist back then, but Paul Winter was now helping to lay the foundation for it. His debut album had been a solid hard bop release in a style similar to what Cannonball Adderley or the Jazztet were doing back then. But his second album was one of the first bossa nova jazz projects, released in August 1962—some of it recorded in Rio de Janiero. And this was a time when even Stan Getz, the leading advocate for the style, hadn’t yet made a visit to Brazil.
Columbia wanted to turn Paul Winter into a bossa nova specialist, and he continued to record in the genre—making seminal records with some of the leading Brazilian musicians of the era, including Sérgio Mendes, Roberto Menescal, Carlos Lyra, and Luiz Eça. “Jazz was my passport to the world,” Winter recalls.
But the saxophonist also wanted to showcase his fluency with a range of various non-jazz styles from outside of Latin America, perhaps most clearly on Jazz Meets the Folk Song from 1964. The folk song revival movement was still in its ascendancy, and Winter was one of the few musicians who believed this could serve as a fruitful platform for jazz experimentation. How many other sax players were recording cover versions of “Waltzing Matilda” and “John Henry” back then? But like so many other initiatives, this proved to be merely a stepping stone, not a final destination for this restless improviser. Revealing his unwillingness to stick with formulas of any sort, Winter had soon moved away from Columbia, and embarked on another period of career reinvention.
When he reemerged as leader of the new band called the Paul Winter Consort, he was now playing in a completely different style. His 1968 album on A&M starts out with evocations of Renaissance music, but before it finishes the listener has been treated to everything from a Hungarian peasant song in 7/8 to a Japanese-inspired improvisation on a “koto scale.” For this new concept, Winter hired several musicians who would go on to gain global success in the jazz chamber ensemble Oregon, including Ralph Towner, Collin Walcott, and Paul McCandless.
Winter had felt this project was rushed, and wanted to make a more complete statement of his new musical vision. This became possible in the most high profile way imaginable when George Martin, producer for the Beatles, signed on to supervise a recording of the Paul Winter Consort. The Beatles had just broken up, and now the so-called “Fifth Beatle” was moving into a new current of experimental improvisation—and with extraordinary results. When the resulting album Icarus was released, Martin allegedly claimed it was the best recording he had ever made—a stunning statement from a man who had presided over Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album.
Winter recalls that not just his music, but the whole philosophy of recording was changing at that juncture. “When the Consort, in 1967, did our first-ever recording, on Peter, Paul and Mary's Album 1700, backing Paul Stookey's ‘The House Song,’ it was amazing to us that they would spend an entire session on only one song. Fast forwarding then to 1971, producing our Icarus album with George Martin in a house by the beach in Marblehead, we had two weeks to do the whole album. Recording by then was a whole new ballgame.”
The title track “Icarus” caught the attention of music fans, and soon became a trademark theme for the Consort—but, even more ambitiously, showcased a new way of playing jazz. Winter and his cohorts had somehow discovered a fresh vocabulary for improvisation, unconstrained by the various post-bop formulas of the day. Critics struggled to describe it. Was it folksy or cinematic or neo-medieval or quasi-classical or some other label of that sort? But the difficulty in finding a proper descriptor simply highlighted the fact that such a style of creative music hadn’t existed a few years before, and no terminology was available to pigeonhole it. It was the age of jazz fusion, yet Winter had created a hybrid style all his own.
During the course of the 1970s, this more expansive and less syncopated approach to improvisation would take center stage in the jazz world, especially under the auspices of German label ECM. But once again, Winter would find himself at the forefront of an exciting movement, only to leave it behind—and rarely get credit for his impact in subsequent years.
By 1980 Winter was conceiving of a type of music that could no longer be called jazz—except by someone with the most broad-minded notion of what that concept entails. For a time, I lost touch with his music. Whatever he was doing, it didn’t intersect with my cliques and communities—until I was at a social gathering where the host asked if I had heard the saxophonist who played music with the wolves.
A musician who played with wolves?
My friend put an album on the turntable, and the track began with an extraordinary sound—it felt like I was right next to a wolf howling at the moon. In time, a saxophonist joined in, and the result was one of the most amazing musical collaborations I’d ever heard. I tried to maintain my studied jazz nonchalance, pretending to treat the track as a kind of stunt and not something a post-bop connoisseur like me would take seriously. But that was just a pose on my part—there was something vital and unconstrained about this music. And the sound of both the wolf and horn shook me up.
After a while, I said I needed to see the album cover, and was shocked that the musician doing this was Paul Winter—who had dazzled me in previous incarnations as a mainstream jazz hornplayer, a Brazilian bossa nova specialist, a folk song champion, and more recently as the pioneer of quasi-classical chamber jazz. Against all odds, had he reinvented himself again—and was now making music with wild animals?
I later learned that Winter described this latest stage in his evolution as a leap from World Music to Earth Music—a clever way of putting it. The wolf was even introduced onstage at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert for the Audubon Society.
But Winter was just as restless as ever. Depending on the month and year, he could be found at various remote locales or even off on the high seas, playing music for sea mammals, and working on integrating whale songs into his music—an extraordinary three-year project unlike anything I’d ever heard of before. For those of who saw the stage of the Village Vanguard as epicenter of all musical greatness, this was a path of saxophony almost impossible to assess or describe. But, in all fairness, even the most devoted Paul Winter fan had a hard time keeping up with his many recordings, performances, and initiatives. He seemed to be everywhere at once.
From my jazzcat stance, I lacked the perspective to understand all this at the time. Eventually I made a similar evolution in my own work as a music writer, seeking out larger connections and holistic significations in my research, but that was still way off in my future in the 1980s. Yet even I could sense that Winter was innovating on a wide number of fronts, raising awareness for endangered animals and ecological concerns, expanding his own range and depth as an improviser, and inspiring audiences who would never go to a jazz club, but were captivated by his creation of a music beyond all boundaries—not just genre constrains, but geographical and even species-related.
As I look back on it now, Winter was also changing the way he created tones and phrases during this period in his evolution. I’m not sure if he learned it from wolves and whales, or just through his own forward-looking efforts at self-reinvention, but he was now able to give extraordinary shape and resonance to even a single note. Phrases of just two or three tones got turned into kaleidoscopes of aural color, revealing new expressive power through Winter’s constantly shifting gradations of texture. If the mark of a great artist is to do more with less, Winter had reached some kind of ultimate level of musical compression.
It’s important to recall that this was all happening during an era of maximalist jazz expression, when sax players were still trying to digest all the multitudinous scales and patterns that John Coltrane had left behind on his albums. This was the era when younger players such as Michael Brecker were developing sax styles built on an ultimate degree of complexity. And amidst it all, Paul Winter was going in the opposite direction, playing as if each single note was a matter of life or death.
From this point on, Winter seemed to operate in a world of music in which no constraints or barriers existed. Sometimes he created music that sounded like birds in spring, at other points he drew inspiration from the planets in their orbits, or created works of spiritual resonance and cross-cultural dimensions, as in his Missa Gaia / Earth Mass, which has been described as an “environmental liturgy of contemporary music.” This latter work was composed for Winter’s Consort supplemented by choir, and the sound of wolves, whales, and other creatures.
But through all this, Winter maintained his commitment to collaborating not just with the animal kingdom, but musicians from all over the world. He has performed in around fifty countries, and any given project might find him playing his horn on top of a mountain in Kyoto, Japan or the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado or the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine or some other inspiring locale where few saxophonists dare to tread.
But Winter also deserves credit for activities beyond live performance and recording. I could devote an entire essay just to his work as a music educator. At an early point in his career, he began offering master classes and workshops for aspiring musicians—he called them “Adventures in SoundPlay." Here he confronted head-on all the dysfunctional limitations of conventional music pedagogy. Instead of the usual quest for virtuosity and perfection, Winter presented an approach in which there were “no wrong notes.” He worked to develop the students’ expressive capacities, rather than push for cold technique. Above all, he created a fear-free atmosphere in which music could be played without the anxieties inflicted by the typical recital-driven regime.
Winter has led hundreds of these workshop events, and they ought to be better known. But the same is true of his humanitarian efforts, which have reached far beyond music. He has received honors from the United Nations, the Humane Society, the Peace Abbey Foundation, and other organizations that don’t really care about his skill in soloing over rhythm changes. They honor Paul Winter because he does more than just blow his own horn.
My friends in the jazz world still don’t know what to make of all this. For the most part, they have acted as if it hasn’t happened at all—or it didn’t relate to the tradition they so zealously defend.
But if this isn’t jazz, what is?
Jazz, to my mind, is a music that breaks down barriers, that boldly incorporates every kind of sound and aural texture into its idiom, that creates spontaneous collaborations of a richness that could never be captured on the printed musical page. Winter has done this as purely and inspiringly as any musician of his generation.
Who has traveled further in his jazz career, with the possible exception of Miles Davis? Just consider for a moment Paul Winter’s path—from a promising modern jazz horn player with a hot combo signed to the most powerful record label in the US, then he explores the full range of Latin American music and plays a key role in the rise of bossa nova. He moves on to the folk song revival movement at a juncture when few jazz artists were paying attention to its riches, and undertakes other cross-cultural projects of tremendous impact. His chamber jazz approach, which comes next, is still emulated today by countless bands. Then he helps invent New Age music. And in his various projects in the natural world, Winter finds a path of expression unlike anything anyone had ever done before. Put simply, this is music-making without limits.
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I’d love to sum all this up in a sentence or catchphrase. But is that even possible? Should I describe Paul Winter as the progenitor of the ECM sound? Or the father of world music? Or the inventor of Earth Music? Or as a favorite protege of George Martin? Or as global ambassador for musical dialogue across all divides?
In truth, he is all these things and more. But the jazz thread runs through all his initiatives—at least jazz as I’d like to envision the genre: world-embracing, surmounting obstacles, exploring new sounds, and forging dialogues that reverberate beyond the bandstand.
Winter is now 82 years old, and I’d like to see him receive some of those special jazz honors—NEA Jazz Master, Downbeat Hall of Fame, or (dare I say) even those so-called ‘genius’ grants for our bravest innovators. Then again, I don’t think Winter himself worries about these things. He operates at a higher level—on mountain peaks, or among the whales and sunsets, or in the heart of the Grand Canyon.
From his perspective, the genre categories and their special awards probably seem like small things indeed. But by honoring him we would do a favor to ourselves too, and for our musical ecosystem. Celebrating Winter’s core values also serves to propagate them—and that could be the largest legacy of all for a musician who has already done so much.