The Creative Crucible
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2021 Anil Prasad.
Paul Winter has profoundly influenced the world of music across myriad genres for 60 years. The saxophonist and composer has been a restless creative spirit since the dawn of his career. His endless curiosity and determination to seamlessly connect cultures and concepts have informed his prolific output, reflected on dozens of albums.
There’s no possibility of categorizing Winter’s music in aggregate, given its impressive diversity. Jazz, bossa nova, Americana, Celtic, Russian, Brazilian, African, and ambient music are just a few of the realms he’s explored in extraordinary depth. Winter is also a pioneer of environmental music, reflecting and acknowledging the forces of nature in many forms from the representational to the literal, with work involving the sounds of whales, eagles and wolves.
Winter has his own description for what he creates: earth music. For him, earth music is about celebrating the creatures and cultures across the planet and emphasizing our interconnectedness and mutual dependence. After working with major record companies throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, he established his own independent Living Music label in 1980 to ensure he could travel across uncompromising musical vistas, limited only by his expansive imagination.
He began his career as the leader of The Paul Winter Sextet, a jazz group he founded while attending Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1961, the sextet won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, judged by Columbia Records producer John Hammond and Dizzy Gillespie. Hammond rapidly signed the group to the label and it went on to record five albums for Columbia, including the bestselling 1962 release Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova.
The sextet gave the first jazz concert held in The White House, performing for President John F. Kennedy in November 1962, released as the 1963 live LP Jazz Premiere: Washington. The U.S. State Department also sponsored the group to go on a six-month goodwill tour of Latin America, across 23 countries.
After the sextet broke up in the mid-‘60s, Winter went on to establish the critically-important Paul Winter Consort in 1967. The group, which continues to this day, combines jazz, classical, music from across the world, and the sounds of animals and nature. The Consort has 14 albums to its credit, featuring contributions from revered musicians, including percussionists Glen Velez and Arto Tunçboyaciyan, cellists Eugene Friesen and David Darling, oboist and saxophonist Paul McCandless, bassist Glen Moore, guitarist and pianist Ralph Towner, and multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott.
A pivotal moment, not just for the Consort, but for musical history, was the release of its 1970 live album Road, featuring the latter five musicians. Produced by Phil Ramone, the album set many significant trajectories in motion. Road’s seamless meshing of myriad musical traditions laid the groundwork for the world fusion movement across subsequent decades and its impact is strongly felt to this day. Notably, astronauts of the 1971 Apollo 15 space mission took Road to the moon and named two craters after the tracks “Ghost Beads” and “Icarus.”
The group’s subsequent studio album, 1972’s Icarus, produced by George Martin, continued with its eloquent, contemplative and melodic cross-genre explorations to beautiful effect. After Icarus, McCandless, Moore, Towner, and Walcott would focus exclusively on their own quartet, Oregon, with McCandless continuing to work with the Consort as his schedule permits.
The Consort’s two most recent albums, 2010’s Miho: Journey to the Mountain and 2019’s Everybody Under the Sun: Voices of Solstice are among its most ambitious to date. The former is a celebration of the cultures and natural beauty of Japan, with a focus on channeling the majesty of I.M. Pei's Miho Museum and the Shigaraki Mountains. It features McCandless, Velez, Tunçboyaciyan, flautist Steve Gorn, and keyboardists Don Grusin and Jordan Rudess. Their performances are combined with recordings of buzzards, cicadas, elephants, and whales to kinetic effect.
Everybody Under the Sun: Voices of Solstice is a diverse anthology of performances by the Consort at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the group has performed more than 100 concerts since 1980. It’s the world’s largest cathedral and one that welcomes people from different traditions. The album captures recordings from across the last 41 years, including 22 singers representing 13 cultures and five continents. A few of those vocalists include Gary Brooker, Karan Casey, Abdoulaye Diabate, Maria Koleva, Lucky Moyo, Niamh Parsons, Nóirín Ní Riain; and Danny Rivera. They’re accompanied by musicians from across the Consort’s history, as well as members of the original Paul Winter Sextet, including trumpeter Marvin Stamm, baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson, pianist Warren Bernhardt, and bassist Cecil McBee.
Winter’s latest recording, 2020’s Light of the Sun, is one of his most significant to date. It’s the first album he’s made in which he’s the featured soloist on every piece, performing on soprano sax. Historically, Winter showcases all members of his groups, driven by a democratic perspective. He sees Light of the Sun as a milestone, recorded at age 80, that extends his focus on music as both a reflection and source of light and optimism in a world facing complex challenges and mired in dark impulses. Light of the Sun offers 15 contemplative pieces, including new and revisited works, designed to evoke the influence of the sun on mornings, afternoons and evenings, as well as the four seasons.
Innerviews spoke to Winter during an extended conversation from his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. In addition to delving into a wealth of career-spanning recordings and projects, Winter contextualizes his art within his respect for, fascination with and desire to contribute to the longevity of the ecosystems that have inspired his journey as one of the world’s most seeking and boundary-stretching musicians.
How has COVID-19 has affected you?
On several levels, it's been a kind of a boon. I'm hesitant to say that because it's not fair for the vast numbers of people for whom it's not been that. But it has enabled me to stay home for a long period. I’ve been able to slow down and do some good work at home. It’s been a great privilege to be able to stay off the road.
I've certainly heard a huge number of the stories of the challenges that people have now, and that we all will continue to experience probably for the indefinite future in ways that we can't maybe even predict now.
What do you see as the unique value of music to the world at a time like this?
Someone wise and probably more than one person said “At the time of the greatest darkness, there's also the greatest light." I feel that in that context, the light of the sun is pertinent. I also think people who feel a deeper need for the things that music can offer—and not necessarily music that is dazzling or entertaining—value it even more right now.
We found a way to do virtual performances here in my barn, which I had never imagined doing previously. It’s quite an extraordinary barn I luckily found in 1974. It’s quite large, with a 30-foot vaulted ceiling. We’ve done several concerts, including our 25th anniversary Summer Solstice celebration. The first 24 were done at the cathedral. So, that’s another positive thing that’s come out the situation.
Both of your most recent albums, Light of the Sun and Everybody Under the Sun, focus on the idea of the sun serving as a guiding pillar of life. They also remind us of the fact that there’s something bigger than our everyday problems. Describe your interest in communicating that perspective.
Light of the Sun is the seventh one I’ve done that focuses on the sun. The Icarus album from 1971 had several sun-related pieces. Sun Singer from 1983, Journey with the Sun from 2000, and Morning Sun, a Paul McCandless retrospective, are three others.
Celebrating the sun is no different from celebrating someone you love or a place on Earth, like the Grand Canyon. It’s about where we live—or at least where I live. It’s about an ever-present reality that influences me a great deal. When the sun shines, I think I smile more.
The solstice events have been integral to my life for half of it—for more than 40 years. The music is about that renewal. There’s a darkening in the United States and much of the world at the moment. I think there’s a deeper need to understand the prospect of coming through the darkness to the light again. I think this is more deeply needed now than at any time in my journey.
Many politicians try to lock the world into a culture of fear and personality. You’ve said art and music can help emancipate people from that fear by helping them understand the world around them and their role in it. Elaborate on that.
I made a comment relating to endangered species in the early ‘70s, when we were doing our first thesis, using the recordings of whale songs and other creatures. I created a litany of about 15 different critically-endangered species, using their voices. I narrated it and identified each one. The music involved drones and was dark. I remember someone coming up to me after a concert performing this music who said “Look, you’re never going to change anything by making people feel guilty. You need to find a way to celebrate these creatures.” That was the best advice I ever received. I realized that’s the role music can serve best and it’s where I’ve put my focus ever since.
My feeling is people have to wake up. In the United States, we’ve been so comfortable for so long that we’ve become very complacent. What we’ve allowed to happen across the last five years is absolutely astounding. And it could only have happened because we were asleep at the wheel.
The reality is that we have something that’s brand new in history, when you situate it in the long history of our species: mass media. Mass media has the effect of dumbing down the whole culture. There are many, many people who no longer get information from anything but the media, so they’re susceptible to having their ideas and information twisted by whatever agenda the media source has.
The other factor is the specter of what it may require to wake us up. It may take Armageddon, because we’re so comfortable and entertainment seems to be becoming the main priority in life. Everybody is habituated to be spectators of this theater of the absurd. We’ve become the United States of Absurdity. It’s the norm. Everybody’s totally subsumed and fascinated by entertainment and mass media, day in and day out.
In saying what I just have, I may be implying too much pessimism. I’ve tried to keep my mind off this by fasting on almost all news for a good while, but I do read things and hear a lot from my friends who keep up with the news. I am trying to visualize a very positive scenario for the future. But on the question of whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, I would have to plead agnostic at this point.
Much of your music is connected to nature and animals. You’ve referred to it as “the symphony of the Earth.” At what point did you realize you wanted to make those connections within your work?
I moved to the country in the fall of 1965 from New York City where I had lived restlessly for three years. But that's where you went in those days if you were intent on being in the music scene. I saw a book at a place in Kentucky where we had played a concert for the homeless called In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World. It's a large coffee table book published through Sierra Club. It features pictures of the landscape in New England by Eliot Porter with text by Henry David Thoreau. When I saw the book, I knew immediately that’s where I wanted to live.
I moved out of the city soon after that and have been here in Connecticut ever since, in the woods. It’s not a lot different from where I grew up in central Pennsylvania. It was where I wanted to live and work. It’s the catalyst for being more specific about incorporating the voices and sounds of nature.
Another catalyst was hearing the songs of the humpback whales during a lecture by Roger Payne at Rockefeller University in May of 1968. I heard from a friend in New York who listened to recordings of whale songs. I couldn’t imagine what he meant. He said “They were better than an LSD trip.” I thought “Well, in spite of that, I’m going to go to this lecture he told me about.” Robert was the man who recorded the whales. That lecture changed my life in many ways. I found the extraordinary voices of the whales very alluring and soulful. It was very blues-like. They sang these complex patterns that could be as long as 30 minutes and as complex as a Beethoven symphony.
Roger discovered the whales repeat the entire sequence verbatim. All the whales in an area of the sea would sing the same song throughout a season. And then the next year, they’ll have a new song they’re all singing. You can also hear where it builds from the song of the year before. That was also astounding to me.
Roger became really famous when he released the album Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970. He showed people that whales are not just big fish. They're extraordinary creatures with an intelligence that may rival, and in some cases, surpass our own. It was also incredible to learn that the whales were being exterminated when all the products they’re used for could be found more cheaply from sources on land. So, I became an activist that night and have remained one ever since.
You began your career with Columbia and A&M, and went on to establish your own label Living Music to ensure you could release music without compromise. Tell me about its establishment and multi-decade longevity.
The thing that finally prompted it was our Charles Ives show in 1974. We did it with an expanded Consort and a whole retinue of singers and musicians. It was a celebration of Ives' 100th birthday at his home in Redding, Connecticut. I had happened to move to West Redding in 1967. The day I moved in, my landlady, who was a wonderful actress named Carmen Matthews said, "Oh yeah, there was another musician that lived on this road. His name was Charles Ives." And I knew a little bit about Ives then, but not very much. So, over the next seven years, I learned a great deal and became fascinated with his journey, having fallen in love with the land that he loved so much.
Every day I would jog down the road, past the mailbox that still said "Ives” although he had died in 1954. When it came time for his 100th birthday, which was going to be in 1974, I read about plans that were afoot to do all these Ives celebrations around the country in fancy concert halls, which he never liked. I decided “Why don't we do an event that would have been something Charlie would have loved?”
I think he would have been happier with the kind of camp meetings that he described when he was a boy. People would come from farms all around to Danbury, Connecticut where he lived. His father, George Ives, was a town band leader. He would conduct songs and hymns that people would sing. He would play his coronet with the left hand and conduct with the right.
I decided to see if we could do a concert at his childhood home, which was still owned by his son-in-law. I wanted to do it at the foot of the hill on top of which the Ives home sits. The idea was to create a kind of amphitheater effect with the band at the bottom. It all worked out. I met a number of musicians through the Ives collection at Yale.
We performed a concert with singers, a Civil War band, and fife and drum corps. It was an amazing celebration of Ives and we recorded it. It was also filmed for public television. But no record company would even think about releasing it. They were interested in just the standard symphonic recordings, which are all of course, great, but this event was too far out for anybody to consider.
No record company would even talk to me about releasing our maverick celebration of Ives, so I founded the not-for-profit Living Music Foundation, with the intent to issue the album on my own—something nobody was doing in the '70s. That album then got hung up because of a publishing drama concerning the arrangement of Ives' "Variations on America," which was our finale. So, that album has been on the shelf for over 40 years. I am still hoping to get it out in the next year or two.
Today, Living Music has 40 albums in its discography. I’m proud of every one of the releases we’ve done. It’s been a great forum for all the things I wanted to do. The first album we released was a celebration of sea mammals entitled Callings. Again, no record company would have even engaged in a conversation with me about that. They couldn't imagine that. So, I was thrilled to finally have the freedom to do exactly what I wanted. But with the freedom came the responsibility of having to find a way to realize it and fund it. We had to learn to do our own manufacturing, marketing and distribution. Distribution was such an insane sequence of companies going in and out of existence. It was difficult to find any kind of reliable, independent distributors. So, when you want to be completely independent, you have to learn how to do nearly everything under the sun.
Light of the Sun is the first album you’ve made in which you’re the featured soloist. Tell me about that decision and why you made it a point of emphasis for this recording.
It's something I've dreamed of doing for a long, long time. My grounding has always been, since I was 12, as a bandleader first and a player second. That predominated the albums I’ve done. I’ve also tended to be quite eclectic because in each of the albums, I've wanted to, in some way, present the whole world of living music. I think they've often been too eclectic for many people to embrace. They may like a few of the tracks, but then others seem like they're from a different place.
In 2000, there was a unique opportunity that was presented to me by an organization in Japan, with whom we've had association for about 15 years called Shumei. It’s a remarkable organization that's unlike anything that I know of in the United States. It’s dedicated to three things: natural agriculture, which is a path even much deeper than organic, the arts and spiritual awakening. Their spirituality is very nature oriented. It's not theistic or evangelical. It's simply about sharing vibrations among people. It’s very difficult to describe, but the organization is extremely inspiring.
We met them through the Dean of the St. John the Divine Cathedral who called me and said "There are some Japanese drummers here visiting, and you need to come down and meet them. So, I drove right to the city to meet the Shumei Taiko Ensemble, and take them to lunch. They were in town to play at the United Nations.
The cathedral has been this forum of interfaith, intercultural convergences for all of the 40 years that we've been artists and residents there. It's amazing and probably the most open-hearted, open-minded religious temple on Earth. It's Episcopalian. There are huge menorahs behind the high altar, which were gifts from the publisher of the New York Times back in the '20s. It has huge Shinto vases from Japan. It's really an amazing world forum, and there are people from many, many cultures who come there.
Through the Taiko band, we eventually were invited to play for the Shumei people at their center in Japan in the Shiga mountains, not far from Kyoto. And they invited us back a number of times, and then commissioned two albums. One is Crestone, named after the area and town in Southern Colorado where they have their American center. The other is about Miho Museum, which they had built at their center in the mountains. It’s an extraordinary museum designed by I.M. Pei, that I regard as the Taj Mahal of Japan. It’s the most amazing marriage of architecture and nature I've ever seen.
In 2019, they asked if I would do an album they could give to their members in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the organization. That recording is called Miho: Journey to the Mountain. They respected our music greatly and said it could be anything that I want. And I thought, maybe this is also the time for me to just take a breather from being the band leader and focus on my own horn, playing in my favorite acoustic places and performing with accompanists I revere.
How do you continue to evolve on your instruments?
I do continue to evolve, even though I’ve never had time to practice. I used to try and practice in January and in June, or maybe July when things are a little slower in the world and there's less travel. It wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks. And then I get swept up again in all the other things. So, to have time to practice and focus on the horn during this period was valuable.
I went to high school in Chicago. I was very much caught up with the bebop scene on the south side of Chicago. And during those four years, the dance band I started when I arrived there as a freshman, as a continuation of the dance bands I had through junior high and high school in Altoona, gradually evolved into a bebop sextet that had some lucky breaks. A month before I graduated, we played in an intercollegiate jazz festival in Washington and won first prize, for which we got a recording contract with Columbia through John Hammond, who was a judge at the competition, along with Dizzy Gillespie.
That was something that was beyond anything we could have imagined. We didn't know anybody who had made any records in our generation, other than the famous players who were already on the scene. So I decided I would take a year off before law school, which I had already been registered to enter at University of Virginia, and try this music thing, which I had never imagined could be a responsible profession. In those days you didn't do what you wanted, you did what you should. Joseph Campbell hadn't arrived on the scene yet to tell us to follow your bliss.
I hadn't majored in music. I thought, well, law school gives you three more years to kind of figure it out. And it was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me because I'd have been a terrible lawyer. The only thing I could have imagined doing was joining Ralph Nader's organization.
So I played then with a kind of brash and edgy sound influenced by the bop sax players I loved, like Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, and a whole raft of probably 50 other players. The sextet with alto and baritone saxes, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums played everything loud. We never used sound systems. Everything was loud, even ballads. And that was a sound that was appropriate because it projected.
The sextet had quite a run of two or three years and then ended soon after the Kennedy assassination. I was disillusioned about a country having been in this bubble of the Kennedy era during the three years of the sextet's journey. Everything was opening up and the Peace Corps had been created. We had been sent to Latin America on a six-month State Department tour of 23 countries. It was an amazing time and we had actually been invited to play at the White House.
We spent a month of the six months in Brazil in 13 cities when bossa nova was just blossoming. We heard João Gilberto's album Chega de Saudade everywhere. His voice was one of the first vocal voices I ever loved. It showed me a new way to play my horn. It didn't necessarily have to be loud and brash.
Living in Brazil and recording the musicians there really made me want to change my sound. So, I went to a great sax teacher in New York named Joe Allard, who was legendary among many musicians, not just jazz. He had taught everybody from Stan Getz to members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the first lesson I said, "I'd like to change my sound." He said, "Great. Do you want to play with a day sound or a night sound?" I said, "A night sound." And he said, "Okay, I'll show you how to get that." He didn't steer anybody toward any particular sound. He said he felt the saxophone was so versatile everybody could have their own personal sound, which is really true.
It's a much more versatile instrument than clarinet, on which it is extremely hard to get a soulful sound. And very few people have done it, Benny Goodman being chief among them in my experience. But saxophone works with different voices, and I love that. And so he showed me how to do it. I totally changed my embouchure. After every lesson, I would walk down Broadway and say, after he had showed me how to do something new, "I can't do that. I mean, it's just impossible." But I did it every time. There were just different aspects of the way you use the muscles and your embouchure. I finally started moving toward the sound that I wanted and by the end of the '60s I had it. And so I've used it all these years, but it's been woven into the fabric of the ensembles that I've had. And so for Light of the Sun, I said, "We'll just take it out front and spend some time and do some recordings." I feel I really put forth the best sound that I could find that I could make on the instrument.
How would you describe the shift that occurred?
I found a sound that I loved that was much more versatile. I could play quietly and not have the sound go wimpy. Stan Getz played loud all the time, but it sounded soft. He could play with a whisper, but he was blowing hard. When you have an instrument that doesn't have a lot of resistance in it like a saxophone, as a conical instrument, as opposed to an oboe or clarinet, which are more cylindrical and have a lot of resistance, you need to supply the resistance yourself. You do that with your body and the way you shift the amount of jaw pressure, and through a certain feeling in the voice box. For lack of any better way to describe it, it's the inverse proportion of pressure at the reed and the feeling in the voice box. And it is different for every note. You can't use the same rigid embouchure from top to the bottom of the horn.
So, that's why saxophones are often so squawky and thin-sounding. I always remember the famous quote by W.C. Fields about the definition of a gentlemen. From the '20s, when the saxophone was all the rage as a new instrument, there were all sorts of saxophone sextets with all the different sizes of saxes. They were playing lots of pretty hokey music in Shriner groups wearing red fezzes. It was sort of a set of novelty instruments. What W.C. Fields said was, "A gentleman is somebody who can play a saxophone, but wouldn't." [laughs] That sums up, to me, the challenge of finding a strong-bodied sound on this instrument.
Everybody Under the Sun, like so much of your work, is a cosmopolitan cross-cultural exploration. It embraces many musical approaches and traditions. Tell me about your vision for the album.
It was a way to have a chronicle of the special guests we've had at our solstice celebrations since 1980. At that point, we had done 38 and every year we aspired to have a singer from a different culture, to learn something of their music and interweave it all into the solstice celebration. And it's been a tremendous inspiration to meet these people. I had the license to do it, because I was the one who had to find a way to fund it all, to bring anybody from anywhere. I would just stick my neck out most every year.
I heard, for example, a great recording of an uilleann pipe with an organ playing ballads similar to the ones that I often had done with sax and organ in the cathedral. I heard it walking by the porch of a house in rural Maine. And I stopped and asked the people "What is that music you're playing?" They said, "Oh, it's a recording by Davy Spillane called Pipe Dreams.” I had heard of Davy because he was the original uilleann piper in Riverdance and the ranking piper in the Irish music scene.
I called Nóirín Ní Riain, who was a very good friend of ours and also one of those guest singers. I said, "Do you know Davy?" And she said, "Yes, I do. And I can contact him for you." So she called him and asked him if I could be in touch with him. He said "Sure.” He'd never heard of me. I flew over to Ireland to meet Davy and spent a few days at his place, totally fascinated with his music. He had built all these extraordinary custom-made uilleann pipes. He agreed to come over and play at the Summer Solstice in 1998.
I heard Renato Braz on a sampler called The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil, which was all pop music, which didn't interest me. And then all of a sudden here was this gem with a gorgeous high tenor like early Milton Nascimento, singing a beautiful song called “Anabela.” And I said, "Wow, who is this? How come I don't know about this Brazilian singer?" I thought I knew everybody who had some sort of magic through my network of friends. It took me several months to track him down. Even Carlos Lira, my longtime friend in Brazil, didn't know about him. That was because Renato was from São Paulo and Carlos was from Rio, which are two different worlds.
Oscar Castro-Neves, the guitarist that I met in '62 in Brazil who became a kind of ex-officio member of the Consort, found him and Renato became our lifelong friend. Renato came first in 2005 to our Summer Solstice celebration and then many years after that, to the Winter Solstice. And we ended up finally doing an album with him called Levantados Do Chão. So those are a couple of examples of these amazing people that have opened up these different musical worlds to me.
You recently released a remastered version of The Winter Consort’s classic 1970 recording Road. Reflect on that album and its importance in establishing how different musical traditions can seamlessly combine.
That album by the Consort has come to be regarded as the original one, although we had done two albums before that with different shifts in personnel. This is the first one where Ralph Towner, Collin Walcott, Glen Moore, and David Darling came together with Paul McCandless, who had started with us in '69.
The first thing we did was a tour of 70 concerts in early 1970. It was absolutely mind-and-boundary-expanding for all of us, especially for the guys who had not had the privilege of playing larger concerts before. I think Ralph and Glen had mostly known club work, and this gave them a really honored forum. I mean honored as in the best listening experience.
Everybody’s capabilities grew quite fast and harmoniously. We decided to record the group live that summer. We recorded in three places: UCLA in a beautiful concert hall, the Whiskey a Go Go club on Sunset Strip, and at the Eastman School of Music at Kilbourn Hall. Phil Ramone was the producer that we engaged after I had done the first two albums with Noel Paul Stookey from Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as the first Consort recording we'd ever done. The previous group was in '68 and that was backing Paul on the Peter, Paul and Mary LP titled Album 1700 on a piece called “The House Song.” We played it with him on the 50th anniversary of it in December 2019 at our 40th annual Winter Solstice Celebration.
We knew Phil because he was an engineer for Peter, Paul and Mary. He produced that first album and it was a happy experience and came out quite well. Ralph wrote some great stuff. Everybody contributed something. So, that was a really good launching for that chapter of the Consort.
Road is a pivotal moment in the evolution of rock, pop and jazz. It created so many trajectories for myriad musicians. I also felt it projected the idea of music as a truly evolutionary, genre-less force when it’s at its best. What are your thoughts on that?
That's a wonderful affirmation and very encouraging. It's hard for anybody to look objectively at what they've done because it just sort of happened. You never intend for something to be pivotal or seminal. You just aspire to make the best music you can. But a lot has to do with the times.
I've often thought about the idea of the creative crucible, which happens when everything is lined up. You have the right people, in the right place, at the right time. And the zeitgeist that embraces and encourages what you're doing. It's not something you could ever plan. It just happens. And I've had it happen at least three times from my early days with the Consort, to the early days of the cathedral in the ‘80s and sometimes in the ‘90s. The times have to be right. With Road, things were very open it seemed, and we were encouraged every step of the way. When you can do concerts like that and have a really warm reception, it's the greatest encouragement of all.
Tell me about your multi-decade working relationship and friendship with Paul McCandless which continues to be so fruitful.
In 1968, the first year of the Consort, we had a lucky break. We caught a gig in Israel, for the Israel Festival that summer. And that was because I had heard a musician, a woman named Ruth Ben-Zvi, who was a clay jar drum player. I wanted to have hand percussion in the Consort, not a drum set since the instrumentation of classical guitar, English horn, alto sax, and flute, are all quieter instruments. It wasn't strong enough to withstand a heavy-duty drum set player. So, Ruth was the first hand percussionist we hired, preceding Collin Walcott.
Ruth loved the ensemble. She had just moved from Israel a year before that, and she had contacts there. So, through Ruth, we were invited to play in this prestigious festival, which is a series of concerts that took place throughout the month that summer in Israel, and a number of ensembles were in that.
One of the ensembles was The Bach Aria group, a group of great instrumentalists from New York, who specialized in singing and playing Bach. At the time Richard Bock was our cellist and his teacher was Bernie Greenhouse, the cellist with the Bach Aria Group. We hung out with them afterwards and met Robert Bloom, the oboe player with the group. I told him I was looking for a great, young double-reed player. He said “The guy you want is Paul McCandless.” He was one of his students.
So, I called Paul and instantly, we were buddies. He comes from a similar area of Pennsylvania as me and had a lot of similar experiences in our background. And so that's where it began.
Paul was just playing English horn for the first year. I didn't want the higher frequencies because I wasn’t playing soprano sax yet. It was only with the 1970 band that he started playing oboe. And of course it just was transcendent. It was extraordinary. I had never heard anybody play the instrument that way. It was like he was kind of shot out of a cannon. He had a background with jazz in high school as a sax player. But he was pursuing a serious classical path until I diverted him. He actually auditioned for the New York Philharmonic and almost got the gig. It was a lucky break for all of us, including him, that he didn't.
Paul is one of the greatest people I've ever worked with. His playing is so exquisite and his writing is wonderful. He was also a very happy spirit and remains that way. That Consort morphed into two groups, with Glen Moore, Collin Wallcott, Ralph Towner, and Paul forming Oregon in 1972. Paul has continued to play our major events over the years at the cathedral and on many of the recordings.
I think Paul is the most overlooked master of his very difficult instrument in history. Nobody has done what he’s done so beautifully, which such an extraordinarily warm, strong, centered tone. He has amazing intonation all the way up into the stratosphere. He goes off the top end of the instrument. Most players are content to stay in their comfort zone.
Reflect on the recent passing of David Darling and his contribution to the Consort.
David had been our cellist throughout the 1970s. He was a musical pioneer, a fellow warrior in our adventures, and a mensch. He was one of the greatest musical partners I have ever had, as well as a treasured friend for over half a century.
Few people know the whole gamut of David’s playing. He was an extraordinary fountain of music, and quite possibly the most versatile cellist in the history of the instrument, up to that time.
David was the perfect cellist for the Consort. He was a unique combination of someone who had come up through the standard educational paths, getting his degrees and becoming a teacher; but who inside had the wild soul of an adventurer. The Consort gave him the forum to explore that side of himself, and he reveled in all of it, both onstage and off. He was a fountain waiting for a green light.
We played several hundred concerts together, traveling to almost every state. It was a great way to see America, especially being then in our twenties and thirties. The amount of fun we all had would be hard to quantify. We laughed enough for several lifetimes. When musicians are together, especially on the road, laughter is our lingua franca. Our concerts were designed to be celebrations, so almost every night was like New Year’s Eve.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have crossed paths with David and that he became part of our musical odyssey. My wish is that his smiling spirit will live on, through the timeless music he has bequeathed to us.
I’d like to name several recordings from the past and get your reflections on them, starting with your debut album, 1961’s Paul Winter Sextet, which came out in Brazil only.
The chronology begins with the Newport Jazz Festival on May 7, 1961, where we met John Hammond from Columbia Records, who promised to record us. I kept in touch with John through that summer and we kept working on material. John recorded us in one day in Chicago, December of that year. We had never been a studio to record before. Talk about a seminal experience. It was a great adventure. Gene Lees was in the control booth, helping. I had just hired Gene to be the manager of our upcoming South American tour. He once was the editor of Downbeat.
I think we probably did at most two takes of any of the pieces. Some of them were in just one take, which was John’s favorite way of recording. He came from an era when what you did when recording a group was put one mic in the middle of the room and have people play what they played on the road. In those days, you didn’t use the studio in a creative way. So, we had to be on our toes. I think everybody played well.
We had Jimmy Heath charts for pieces like “The Thumper,” which was kind of the core of the repertoire we had when we won the Intercollegiate Jazz Fest. Dick Whitsell, the trumpet player, and I went to New York City in the summer of 1960 looking for Jimmy. We loved his album, also called The Thumper. It was a sextet, with Nat Adderley and Curtis Fuller. We thought, “If we’re going to create this great band, we’ve got to have great charts. So, why don’t we start at the top? Let’s ask Jimmy.” We went to the Five Spot Club to hear Lionel Hampton’s band. On a break, we talked to their drummer Stu Martin and told him why we had come to New York. He said “Jimmy’s not in New York. He lives in Philadelphia.” So, the next morning we drove there. Somehow we found Jimmy’s mom in the south side of Philadelphia. I knocked on the door and said “Is Jimmy home?” She was very nice and said “Oh yes. He’s down in the basement in the studio.” We went down and he couldn’t believe these kids would come all the way from Chicago to see him. We asked him about his arrangements and he said “Sure, I’ll sell them to you for $10 a piece.” There were seven parts he had used on The Thumper album. But we didn’t have $70. So, I called my dad in Altoona, Pennsylvania and he sent the money by Western Union. And, so we had the beginning of our book.
By the time we made the album in December of 1961, we had other repertoire. We had a great time recording it. Then in February 1962, we went to Latin America for six months. Columbia released the album only in Brazil before we arrived there. Bossa nova was blossoming in Brazil at the time. We were fascinated with the music. We started recording with some Brazilian musicians at Columbia’s studios there. When we got back in July, Columbia said they wanted a bossa nova album. Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd just had a big hit with Jazz Samba. So, we went to work on a series of bossa nova pieces and that became the album Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova from 1962, which is the first official album.
Columbia never went back to the first album. We did another album that summer in 1962, featuring our other repertoire. It happened to be all the pieces we played at the November 19, 1962 concert at The White House. So, Columbia released Jazz Premiere: Washington as our next album in early ’63, with those pieces.
Jazz Meets the Folk Song (1964).
In the spring of '64, I was meeting with John Hammond to talk about our next album, which would be our fourth album for them. After the Jazz Premiere: Washington album, the next one was called New Jazz On Campus, which is live recordings we had done in the spring of '63, on the road at colleges. And so we were talking about this fourth album the next spring, and John said, "Well, folk music has become popular in this country. Maybe you could do some jazz impressions of folk music." I didn't know anything about folk music of this country. I knew something about some of the folk traditions in the Latin American countries we had visited, but I was not interested in any vocal music at all.
It just wasn't that I had heard it and disdained it, it's just I didn't hear it, period. I was completely immersed in instrumental music—mainly jazz. And John said, "Well, look, I'm recording Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall next week. Why don't you come and sit in the booth with me?" And so I did, and I heard Pete for the first time, and that was an absolute epiphany. There was a voice I could really relate to. It was real. It wasn't some kind of showbiz-affected voice that was in a sense saying, "Look at me and send me money." It was real. And he was singing about real things. I was amazed. It was actually the album that became his most famous, called We Shall Overcome, that he was working on.
Warren Bernhardt and I spent the summer of ’64 exploring different folk songs and did some arrangements. We came into the studio in November to record. And we did the first sessions at 30th Street, that great, amazing classic studio Columbia had that was a former church. It was the scene of so many of their iconic recordings, including Glenn Gould and Simon and Garfunkel.
We were almost done with the album when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and we were incredibly depressed. Our world had come to an end.
We had one more session after we heard the news. We recorded “We Shall Overcome.” And that was the end of the sextet. It was the last recording we ever did. We just didn't want to continue after that. I was ready to leave New York City and leave jazz. We were disillusioned. We just didn't see any future after Kennedy was assassinated. It was really earth shattering for many of us.
The Winter Consort’s self-titled debut (1968).
I mentioned Peter, Paul and Mary, earlier. We had met them during the Lyndon Johnson campaign in '64. I had reorganized a temporary version of the sextet, having been requested to be part of that campaign. We were all really campaigning against Barry Goldwater. We were not great Johnson fans, but it was the only way. It was a shred of possibility of perpetuating what Kennedy had begun. We became great friends with Peter, Paul and Mary. Noel Paul Stookey was fascinated with my ideas for a new kind of ensemble. We spent a lot of time together, exploring different kinds of musical ideas. He offered to be the producer of our first Consort album.
We were able to produce it independently and not have to try to beg and scrape at some record company's door to get them to do it. That was important, because it was not like any group that they had ever entertained, had ever seen or thought about. We recorded by far the most eclectic repertoire that I ever worked on. We did some adaptations of classical pieces and all sorts of things.
I had dreamed of having Gil Evans write for us, because he was my hero. I felt that the albums he did with Miles Davis were iconic and unforgettable—Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess. They’re among the pinnacles of American music. I love Gil’s textures involving different woodwinds and brass. He didn't write for sections of horns. He wrote with the idea of integrating all the different instruments.
So, Gil was the most influential point of reference for me, in imagining the first Consort. I went to visit Gil and talked to him about arranging. He was extremely friendly and supportive, but he said it just wouldn't work for him at that time to collaborate, given whatever he was going through. But he did make one suggestion for a piece called “Choral Dorien,” which is an organ piece by the French composer Jehan Alain. Gil said "Why don't you have a sax solo over this one section?" That was a great idea, which I wish I did. That’s the thread of influence from Gil in the Consort’s recording experience.
It was great to record all of that different music. We sent the album to some different labels and it came down to A&M and Elektra. We chose A&M and they became the label for our first three Consort albums.
I now have the rights to those recordings. I’m working towards releasing an audio biography. People have said “You should write a book about your experiences.” But the last thing I think the world needs is another book. After they’re read, they go on a shelf. I know many, many people who have a huge collection of books that are just sitting there. I want to do something that’s of more use. The idea is an audio biography that incorporates the music works, because the ear remembers, while the eye forgets. I think the first chapter will be called “Early Winter” and the first Consort album will be part of that.
The Winter Consort’s Icarus (1972).
That album was another fluke of luck. Throughout the late ‘70s, our band was hopeful of getting Albert Grossman to manage us. He was the manager of people like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Band. I had known about Albert when I was in Chicago in the late ‘50s. He had started a folk club there called Gate of Horn. I never went because I wasn’t interested in folk music then, but I knew about him.
Then Albert came to New York City in the early ‘60s and became the manager of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan, and The Butterfield Blues Band. He had a huge roster of people who were really happening at the time. Because of my friendship with Peter, Paul and Mary, I got to know him and people who work with him. He came and listened to some of our sessions.
I don't think he ever saw any commercial potential in us. Finally, around 1970, it might have been after we had played a number of times with Richie Havens, opening for him. Finally, Albert sent a couple of his lieutenants and they said, "Okay, fine. We'll sign you." At that time, Albert had retired to Woodstock, having lost Dylan, and he was not too happy about things. His partner though, a man named Bennett Glotzer, had brought in a rock band called Seatrain. He had the idea of asking George Martin to produce Seatrain, because the Beatles had just ended and he figured George was at a loose end.
George agreed to consider producing Seatrain. He came over in December of 1970 to hear them play at Carnegie Hall. Then Bennett had the idea that maybe he could get George to produce the Consort. He convinced George to have lunch with me the day after that concert. We hit it off so well. He was totally fascinated with this group, especially because it had an oboe in it. George had been an oboe player before he was a record producer. He played oboe with the Sadler's Wells Ballet in London. So, the plan was George and his family would come over in August for three weeks and have a working vacation. Bennett would rent them a house on the beach in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and rent another house to serve as a recording studio. We all stayed in a motel near there.
They got a mobile audio truck, which we had used for several albums, to bring their remote gear and put it in the dining room in the other house. They set up mics in the living room of this house that we came to call Seaweed Studio. We had the most amazing couple of weeks with George. They were the most idyllic recording sessions we had ever imagined. Everybody went to the beach in the morning and then came in. We came in at 2pm and worked until 10pm.
George was open to everything. We tried all kinds of stuff. Here, we really got to explore using the studio as a creative forum. There were a lot of great ideas from George. I always described him as a cross between Prince Philip and Stan Kenton. He was a tall, noble guy who would always just smile, with lots of humor. There was a lot of humor in the Consort too, especially Ralph Towner, who is one of the funnier people that I've ever known. It's such an interesting aspect.
George told us a great story. He said that it was really the Beatles’ sense of humor that convinced him to sign them. Brian Epstein brought the Beatles to George after they'd been turned down by every record company in London. At that stage, he was highly regarded by the hierarchy at EMI. He was recording humor records by Peter Sellers and The Goon Show. George said he wanted to take a chance on this pop group.
EMI said, "Well, it's your neck. If they don't work out, it's your job. You're gone.” He brought them in the studio and asked them to play one of their songs, and he would record it. So, they did. He invited them in the control room to listen, and they listened to it, and George said, "Is that what you had in mind? Is there anything you'd want to change?" George Harrison looked at him and said, "Well, for starters, I don't like your tie." The other guys winced and said, "Oh God, George, don't do that." But George Martin loved it. He recognized some kind of spark that these kids had. So, he took a chance on the Beatles, and I think we can agree it worked out quite well. [laughs] As I said, it was an amazing experience to work with George. I listen with great affection to the music from Icarus.
Reflect on Towner’s contribution to Icarus.
It was enormous. Ralph is a genius. Ralph's pieces on that album are extraordinary. There was something about the creative crucible in that time that began with the Road album. Icarus was magical, with George. Of course, “Icarus” had been recorded first on the Road album.
There’s quite an interesting story about how “Icarus” happened in the spring of 1970, when we were doing that very long tour. On a break, I had come to New York to look for a 12-string guitar for Ralph. I had asked Ralph if he would be up for playing one, because I loved the metallic sound of the 12-string. It was like the harpsichord sound in early music ensembles. I also loved the way it had been used by The Byrds in their music. Ralph said, "No, I don't want any of that folky stuff." He was a serious classical guitar player and had studied in Vienna, with the approach where you have your foot up on a little wooden stool, and had a certain posture.
He was a superb student of that guitaristic tradition, but he was also a great jazz piano player. He was bringing both of those streams of his experience together. In any case, I thought, "Well, I'm going to give it a shot." So, I bought a Guild 12-string and I flew back to Kansas to rejoin the band. We were staying in a motel that had little cabins. I went over to Ralph's cabin and I handed him the 12-string and Joni Mitchell's first album, which had just beautiful steel-string guitar, produced by David Crosby.
Ralph was rehearsing or jamming with Collin Walcott on tabla. When I knocked on the door, Ralph was very surprised and took the 12-string. I went away and later he told me that he started fooling with it and said, "Get out of here Collin, something's coming. I've got to write it down." He wrote “Icarus” in 30 minutes. We started playing it that night at Kansas Wesleyan University, and then played it throughout the summer, including recording it under the title of “Ralph's New Tune.” When the album that would become Road was finished, we edited it.
I was thinking we had to find a better title for that tune. I thought it was such a great tune that “Ralph's New Tune” just didn't cut it for me. Ralph was not worked up about what it would be called. Ralph is so deeply music-minded that things that would be more of a commercial consideration don't occur to him. He's absolutely a pure music being. I thought, "I know, I'll ask Joni Mitchell. She'll have some great ideas." I knew Joni because we recorded “Both Sides Now” on the first Consort album in 1968. During Summer 1969, when we were touring in Los Angeles, A&M had us do a special concert in the A&M studio.
Joni came with a friend, Michael Vosse, who was an artist relations man and a good friend of hers. I was interested in finding another song by Joni that we could record on our second album. We all had lunch the next day with Joni and Graham Nash, who was her boyfriend at that time. It was a nice talk. The only song she had was “Woodstock,” which I thought was great, lyric-wise, but it wasn't melodically something I felt we could do anything with. In any case, fast-forward another year to September of 1970. Michael by then had come to Redding a few times to see me in his role as an artist relations person for A&M. He had met a young woman named Barbara Whiting in Redding, and they had gotten married.
It's bizarre, all the aspects of the story. Michael and Barbara were living in the coach house at Mark Twain's old estate called Stormfield in Redding. That was Twain's last residence. Joni came to visit Michael. So, I said to Michael, "Would you ask Joni if she would come over, and I can play her this song, so we could find a title?" Joni came over to the little stone cottage I was renting at the farm there, and sat on the sofa, and I played the piece. I told her that we were calling it “Ralph's New Tune.” She listened and said "Oh, that's really nice."
She said, "Well, I think ‘Ralph's New Tune’ is a perfectly fine title for that." I was completely brought down. I said, "Oh no. Wow." I was bummed out. I didn't tell her that. I kind of gave up at that point on the title. Then Ralph and Collin were driving somewhere, and the subject of W.H. Auden's poem, “September 1st, 1939,” came up, in which there's an allusion to Icarus. So, just before the album was about to be manufactured, Ralph told me the title would be “Icarus.”
Going back to the Icarus album, Ralph and I went to London to mix the album with George, and then came back. Ralph didn't like the mixes, so I went back again and remixed them with Ralph, and we actually overdubbed a singer named Janet Johnson to sing the very high part on this song, “Minuit.”
In November 1971, George got the master tape to Bennett Glotzer, and he took it to Capitol. Now, at this point, we were no longer with A&M and Bennett had convinced Capitol to sign the band when he told them George Martin would be producing us.
So, Bennett walks into the Capitol offices to meet with the head A&R guy in Hollywood. He puts the master tape on his desk and said "There's your album." The guy said, "What album?" He said, "Paul Winter Consort." This guy, by the way, was a new A&R chief because the former A&R head, who was a famous record business guy named Artie Mogull, had been fired. It turns out the new head had never heard about this project. They had shredded $65,000, which was a huge amount then. That would be four times that amount now. The guy said, "Consort? We don't want that. There are no consorts on the charts."
He wouldn't even listen to the album, despite the fact that it had been produced by the man who had sold a quarter of a billion albums for Capitol Records. They ate the $65,000. Bennett was furious and he stuck it to them. Then he called me and he said, "Are you sitting down?" He said, "We don't have a label. They don't want it." I was really disappointed because I had high hopes for the album. We had worked on it quite hard in those previous months.
In mid-December 1971, I got a notice from a shipping company in Danbury, the biggest town near Redding, that there was a package for me. I went there and picked up this package, which was a case of champagne, and I got it home and I opened it up. In there was a form letter from Capitol Records saying, "Merry Christmas to all of you from all of us at Capitol Records." We were obviously on some sort of artists' sheet and they said, "Send champagne to all the artists.” They hadn't realized we had been dumped. I thought that was the ultimate irony of that whole saga.
I had to take the ball and run with it next January, and find a label. I found a guy at Epic who was sympathetic. So, they did a master purchase of the album, with a stipulation that they had the option to sign us to do future albums. It ended up, they didn't exercise it. The album didn't sell enough to measure up to what they wanted at that time. So I had the feeling that it had never gone anywhere. I thought, "Well, George would be disappointed." He was used to having great success with his albums. I didn't think much more about it.
Seven years later in '79, I was in Edinburgh, where we were performing. I walked by a bookstore and there was, in the window, a book displayed called All You Need is Ears with a smiling picture of George Martin. I went in and I thought, "Wow, that's great. George did an autobiography. I wonder if he even mentions our album." I looked up in the index and went to the page, and George talked about recording an album with this unusual group. He said, "It was the finest album I've ever made." That was pretty stunning.
What was it like for you when Towner, McCandless and Walcott moved on after Icarus?
The band ended in spring of 1972. Ralph, Paul, Collin, and Glen Moore were already doing a lot of jamming as a quartet and had even done some demo recordings in Los Angeles. They were definitely on a clear trajectory to go in their own direction with Oregon, which involved a lot more improvising than we were doing in the Consort which was always a balance between ensemble playing and improvising. All four of them were virtuosos, so it made perfect sense. It’s what happens in groups.
Being together in a group is a creative and intense experience, because you’re sharing this journey with everybody. You’re traveling and sharing the challenges of translating different dreams and ideas through music. Everyone grows, but we don’t always grow along the same lines, because we’re all different. My orientation towards ensembles and bands is still much more deeply rooted in me than extended improvising. So, David Darling and I stayed with the Consort's original direction, and the Oregon guys started an amazing band. At that time, the Consort had no album out and it looked like there was no future anybody could see for it. Icarus wouldn’t come out until later that year.
Let's explore Callings (1980).
It had its roots in May of '68 when I first heard the humpback whales in New York. I had explored different possibilities of pieces with whales in the '70s as well. The seed for this album really came in Baja California between ’77 and ’79. In October '76, Governor Jerry Brown declared Whale Day in California and had a three-day event in Sacramento called California Celebrates the Whale. Everybody under the sun who had any interest in whales was there, including biologists, activists, advocates, poets, Joni Mitchell, and John Lilly. That's where we met and played with Gary Schneider for the first time. It was an amazing series of presentations, talks and music, with a lot of off-stage comingling of different whale folks, sharing ideas.
One of the people there was a guy named Will Janis who wanted to do a film about people interacting with whales. He invited the Consort to come to Baja California in February of '77 and spend a week on Magdalena Island by Magdalena Bay, where the gray whales come to meet and calve every year.
We spent our days out on rafts and boats by the whales. He was filming people doing kathak dancing, playing music and all kinds of stuff with whales. It's like we had discovered this species that was somehow kindred, absolutely no threat to us, and really noble and wonderful. All the different species of whales seemed like they were our friends. We did that three years in a row. So, it was a music-making, whale-watching expedition.
The last night we were there, we had our campsite just about 100 yards from the bay. One of the women had taken some pots down to the water to wash them, and heard the sound of something swimming nearby. She sat quietly, and here was this sea lion pup who was curious and came to shore, and actually allowed her to pet it. She called to us, and soon we were down there and we're about six pairs of hands petting this sea lion pup. It was so amazing. We were so moved. We didn't know what had happened with him. There's a rookery of sea lions at the south end of that island that’s miles away.
We decided we were going to bring our sleeping bags down there and sleep next to this little guy. And so we put our heads so close to him, so we could hear his amazing breathing. They breathe like whales with a very sharp out-breath and a strong in-breath, which is what they have to do when they spout. And when they have to breathe, when they come up for air, it sometimes creates a spout like the whales and he had sort of fishy dog breath. It was very much the feeling that we've always had toward dogs and puppies. In the middle of the night, the tide came up and we had to move our sleeping bags.
We wrapped him up in a sleeping pad, looking like a hot dog and carried him up by the campfire. And everybody just fell in love with him. And we were leaving. We were breaking camp the next morning and nobody wanted to go. Some people said, "Let's take him with us," and we knew we couldn't do that. When we pulled away from the shore, he was sitting there looking at us. It was so poignant. I thought I'd like to learn more about the fin-footed pinnipeds, of which he was one of the species.
That sparked the idea for a story and a musical journey and continued north along the west coast of North America, and around Alaska, through the Arctic Sea, ending up as a seal pup in Newfoundland,. Along the way, the seal pup encounters 13 different species of sea mammals from all the different seals to walruses. I found recordings of all their voices, made pieces and put them together in that album entitled Callings.
Earthbeat featuring The Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers (1987).
In '86, the Consort did its first tour of Russia, which I had aspired to do since I'd been in college in the ‘50s. I had gone there several times on my own. I had met the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and we became good friends. He helped us knock on doors to get permission to visit wilderness areas in Siberia that were closed to most people.
When Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the first cultural agreement in a long time earlier in 1986, it was agreed that Vladimir Horowitz would come to Russia. And we became the second group. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by our State Department, but requested by the Russians. People knew of my previous visits, and some of our recordings came out there, somehow. There was at least one amazing article written there about our work.
We performed several concerts and our final one was at Moscow University, sponsored by the Moscow University Ecology Club, which had just been given permission to be formed. There were no environmental groups in Russia before that. And because of this one friend that I had made there, Leonid Pereverzev, perhaps the country’s most famous jazz journalist, who had friends in the Central Committee, they got permission for us to be the first Western group allowed into Moscow University. He loved the ensemble and thought that there was a kinship between the group and The Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers that we should explore. He got them to be our opening group and we loved their music. It was such a revelation to hear that extraordinarily Slavic chorus sound, which I had loved from hearing the Bulgarian choirs in the early ‘60s.
Dmitri was in an ensemble of 12 young men and women who had been conservatory-trained musicians who had discovered the magic of ancient Russian village music. They spent their summers for many years learning those traditions. I told Dmitri how much had we loved their group and how we hoped we could record with them sometime. I said “I hope someday we could bring you to the States to tour with us.” I remember he politely smiled, and I knew that in his mind, that was about as remote as going to the moon. At that time, there was no possibility. But things opened up very quickly under perestroika and the next spring, we got permission from Melodia, the state record company, to come back and record them. We brought the recordings home and spent the summer improvising different ideas, simultaneous with their recording. We would have our own piece play doing our thing simultaneously with them doing their thing. From that came the album Earthbeat. The next summer, we did bring them to the US for a tour of 25 cities. And they came a number of times after that to be at our solstice celebrations.
Prayer For the Wild Things (1994).
We were asked by a publisher of fine art prints called the Greenwich Workshop to do a companion album to a painting by their chief artist named Bev Doolittle from California. She created a genre called camouflage art. She painted these amazing landscapes of different scenes, mostly in the West in which there would be different animals and Native Americans camouflaged in the picture. And you have to look at it for a while and then gradually you see these figures. It's a kind of participatory art.
My wife and I first went out to the mountains in Colorado where Bev had painted a piece called “Prayer for the Wild Things”. It had 26 animals and birds of the Northern Rockies camouflaged in this landscape of a mountain. I spent that summer with my wife and Mickey Houlihan, a great recording engineer, who's done many of our remote recordings in different spaces in the Northern Rockies, and we created this album.
Tell me about your forthcoming Flyways project.
It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on. It's a musical chronicle celebrating the great bird migration from Southern Africa, the Rift Valley, Eastern Africa, through the Middle East to Europe and Asia, and back six months later. Half a billion birds of 300-some species make this journey. I became aware of it in 1993, after a concert in Israel. An ornithologist there put me in a two-person glider with a motor, and we went up and soared with the migrating storks. We turned off the motor and were part of this amazing slow-motion ballet with hundreds of storks, beautifully spiraling their way South.
They don't fly in a straight direction. They soar in widening spiral arcs to make this long journey. And that experience for me was incredible. We then turned on the motor and flew down over Jerusalem. On that journey, I had the idea of creating a project using the indigenous music of 16 cultures over which the birds fly over.
Since 2005, I’ve gone to those 16 countries and recorded indigenous music and realized that the indigenous music and cultures are as endangered as the birds. So, it's become a double-themed project and it's about 90 percent done. I'm hoping I can complete that soon. The culmination of it will be bringing together one musician from each country and recording the interplay among them.
How does spirituality inform your music?
I think of spirit in terms of life and breath. Enthusiasm is a word I like better. It means the God within. Spirituality is a problematic word because it's been ruined. I guess for many people it applies to something outside themselves—something above or beyond or something that they can aspire to getting. If our spirit is truly alive—and I find it hard to believe that it can be, if we're too far away from nature—then there's a chance that we can awaken to reality and continue the journey. Maybe call it the evolution of our wayward, adolescent species towards maturity. We're the youngest of all species on the planet. There may be 15-20 million others. Nobody knows exactly.
The whales have been here 30 million years, which is more than a hundred times as long as homo sapiens with a big brain, which have maybe been here 300,000 years. The whales long ago found a way to live in harmony with their home and environment. Billions of other experiments in nature have disappeared. They went extinct because they didn’t do that. Humans haven’t learned how to do that yet. I don't know what our chances are at this point. It will only happen if we can find a way towards that harmony with our home, which is the Earth. Do we have a chance to blossom as a species? Some would say, well, we've done pretty well already. We've done amazing things, good and bad. I would say, awakening our true spirit and whatever that’s meant to be for our species is the quest. It’s going to arise from within us, not from saviors.