Photo: Bill Ellzey
Paul Winter On How His New Album, 'Light Of The Sun,' Starts A New Path In His 60-year Recording Career
When the soprano saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Paul Winter gazes at the night sky, he's not just looking for the Man on the Moon. Not only did Apollo 15 astronauts name two craters after his songs ("Icarus" and "Ghost Beads"), but they left a cassette copy of Road, a 1970 live album by Winter's longtime band The Paul Winter Consort, on the moon. "When I look up at the moon at night, and I remember that story, sometimes I don't quite get it," Winter tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from his farm in Connecticut. "'I think, 'No, that's not possible.' But they said they left the cassette up there, so I've told friends, 'When you go to the moon, take a cassette player and see if you can find my cassette.'"
Winter, who's won six GRAMMYs as an artist, may have turned 81 this year, but he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the 81-year-old's latest release, Light Of The Sun, released last month (Nov. 13) via Living Music, starts a new path in his 60-year recording career. It's the first time Winter is the featured soloist after decades of assuming the role of bandleader and involving numerous collaborators in his recordings. "It's something I'd dreamed about doing for a long, long time," he says. "When I turned 80, I thought, 'This is as good a time as any to do it.' It was great fun to focus on my playing. It's been a great labor of love, and I consider this my testament as a sax player, but I don't mean to imply it's my last one. I'd like it to be my first one."
Light Of The Sun embraces Winter's lifelong fascination with the sun. (Some of his previous album titles include Sun Singer, Journey With the Sun, Morning Sun, and Everybody Under the Sun.). "The idea was to try to see if the feeling of the sun, the sunlight, could be transmuted into music the way sunlight transmutes chlorophyll giving life to all the plants," he says. "I've long been fascinated with the sun and the ways that we experience it. It's the source of our life. All life on Earth comes from the sun, and it's just a tremendous factor in our lives that we don't think about too much."
To Winter, the sun also symbolizes hope, kindness, love, serenity, and optimism. As Winter's soprano sax takes front and center, winding prominently through the record, the 15 compositions are as celebratory as they are soothing. At times, the music sounds uplifting, like a morning prayer. At others, the soothing music sounds like the perfect companion to a relaxing glass of wine at the end of the day. A welcome antidote to a dark and stressful year, Light Of The Sun offers a delightful musical reprieve from 2020's turmoil.
To best capture his sound, Winter utilized wide open spaces to allow for the most robust musical resonance and reverberation, recording in three unique locations: the Miho Museum in Japan; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and the Grand Canyon. He first discovered the powerful acoustics inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1968 during Duke Ellington's funeral service, where Ella Fitzgerald sang, and musicians from Ellington's orchestra played in honor of the jazz composer and bandleader. Since 1980, Winter's been the artist-in-residence at the historic cathedral, where he's held winter solstice celebrations for forty years.
Growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Winter switched from clarinet to saxophone after falling in love with big band music when he was seven years old. "It was in the 1940s and the big band era," he says. "I loved that music more than anything, and to have a whole genre of music very much in the air and alive in our culture to inspire me then was exciting." Luckily for Winter, his grandfather owned a music store, making it easy to get a saxophone.
By the time he was 12, Winter had a group in the vein of German drinking bands. He played churches, the local YMCA, and the rotary club. His mom was his roadie. "It was great fun, and people loved seeing these kids play this happy, wacky music and telling jokes that were very corny, of course, but all the funnier because we were only twelve," Winter says. He received his first payday when, one night, he made 50 cents after a performance. "When you were twelve in 1951, that was big money," he says.
A couple of years later, his band morphed into a 9-piece dance band, playing Great American Songbook standards. "That music is so timeless," he says. "That shaped my aesthetic a lot." While enrolled as a Northwestern University student, Winter formed the Paul Winter Sextet, incorporating bebop music. In 1961, they won an intercollegiate competition judged by jazz virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie and record producer and talent scout John Hammond, who had discovered Aretha Franklin and signed Bob Dylan. Hammond promptly signed Winter to Columbia Records. "It was astounding; I'd never dreamed of anything like that," Winter says.
Unfortunately, Winter says that because jazz was an underground phenomenon, there was nowhere to play publicly. Sitting around his apartment with nothing to do, he decided to write to the U.S. Department of State, asking to be sent on a goodwill tour of Latin America.
"We were perfectly integrated with three Blacks and three whites at a time early in the Kennedy years when civil rights were the burning issue, and I was extremely interested in cultural exchange," he says. Winter didn't expect a response to his letter, but a few months later, his request was granted. For six months, the Paul Winter Sextet toured Latin America, played concerts in 23 countries, and received steady pay. He recalls the joy he derived when he performed for 5,000 barefoot villagers in Bolivia: "They had no experience with what we were doing, but they loved it because it was rhythmic, and in the warm countries, people like to move."
When they returned from their tour, the band decided to move to New York to try their luck. But though their tour of Latin America was a success, there was still no work to be had and nowhere to play live. Winter considered going to the University of Virginia law school, whose acceptance he had deferred for a year. By then, the Paul Winter Sextet had put out two records, 1961's The Paul Winter Sextet—which only came out in Latin America—and 1962's Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova, which became a minor hit, selling 30,000 copies.
Fortuitously, the band got to play an unusual and unlikely venue. As part of Jackie Kennedy's Concerts for Young People By Young People initiative, the Paul Winter Sextet was the first-ever jazz group invited to perform at the White House in 1962. When they arrived, the First Lady told Winter that she'd been listening to Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova nonstop for three weeks. As President John F. Kennedy worked down the hall nearby, Mrs. Kennedy watched the performance, along with a room filled with children and reporters. The following day, according to Winter, the news headlines read, "Jackie Loves Jazz." With his moment in the spotlight, Winter got work touring clubs around the country. But he didn't like it. "In nightclubs, you were almost a liquor salesman, there to entertain people so they would drink more, and the acoustics were bad."
Soon after, Winter broke up the jazz ensemble and lived in Brazil for a year. Playing with Brazilian musicians planted the seeds for his next musical pursuit. In 1967, Winter formed the Paul Winter Consort, combining jazz, world and classical music, and nature sounds. A few years later, he signed with Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Band, and other luminaries. But the Paul Winter Consort didn't fit into an apparent musical genre, making it hard to break through to an audience despite having released three records. "Record stores didn't know whether to put it in classical, jazz, or folk, so they put it nowhere," Winter says.
To attract a large audience to the band, manager Bennett Glotzer introduced Winter to the Beatles' famed producer George Martin. Martin played oboe and had a deep grounding in classical and instrumental music. "George agreed to have lunch with me, and we hit it off so well," Winter says. With Martin at the producing helm, the Paul Winter Consort spent three weeks recording in the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1971. They released the resulting Icarus to critical acclaim in 1972.
That's when Winter became renowned as a pioneer of new-age music, which makes him laugh. "It's a joke," he says. He explains that the new age classification was given to him by the record industry when electric music dominated the music scene. Many perceived acoustic music to aid meditative purposes and alternative therapeutics. The simple tag of "new age" positioned the Paul Winter Consort's genre-evading records in record store aisles and awards categories.
While the Paul Winter Consort never fit neatly into one musical category, there is a specific music genre of which Winter's never really been a fan; rock music. So it was ironic when Winter found himself on bills in the seventies with rockers like Procol Harum, Spirit, and Bruce Springsteen. The latter opened for Winter at a gig in 1973. The Boss's friendliness and his extreme confidence struck Winter, but he watched just a small portion of Springsteen's set. "When he started talking about New Jersey, David Darling and I said, 'OK, let's go out for dinner,'" he deadpans.
Nature's music was more Winter's speed, and he had first fallen in love with it when he heard humpback whales in 1968. The yearning quality in whales' songs enamored him, which led to his fascination with other wild animals' sounds. For instance, wolves' howls express what Winter calls "the universal blues." Since the 1970s, Winter has been incorporating what he calls "the symphony of the earth" into his music. He's currently working on a new recording project, recording Indigenous peoples' music in fifteen countries situated along the African-Eurasian flyway, to raise support and awareness for migratory birds, including storks and cranes, who need protection.
As humble as he is hard-working, Winter doesn't display any of his six GRAMMYs on his mantle, preferring to keep some of them in boxes in his barn. He gave several of them away. "I don't think it's healthy to keep awards around. It gives you an illusion that you've accomplished something," he says. "For me, it's always what I'm doing next." He's even reluctant to take credit for his success, continually attributing it to good fortune. "I think if one realizes any dreams in their lifetime, they're lucky, and I've had a huge abundance of luck," he says.
Though he hasn't had the same level of success as some of his contemporaries, Winter says he wouldn't want it because it often comes at a cost. "I think something happens when you have huge success," he says. "Once you become used to the fame and the adulation and the entourage, it seems like often people lose their muse, that the thing that originally propelled them toward resting whatever they did that reached a wide audience and their output ends. They can still perform, but their music is no longer full of magic. There's a certain amount of humility and creative aspiration that is needed."
"Of course, I can't be critical of people who had great success," he adds. "They earned it. It's remarkable how the adventures that it afforded them, but it's very hard to find people who reach that level who still have their original values intact."
He points to acclaimed folk singer Pete Seeger as a rarity who never lost his integrity. Winter first heard Seeger's music when Hammond took him to a Carnegie Hall concert in 1963. "It was like a revelation hearing a voice that seemed very real to me," he says. "It didn't sound like a pop music voice where you feel somebody's trying to sell you something. And he spoke about [authentic] things in the world. I had never been allured to listen to folk music. That was the big turning point for me." Three years later, the pair met at the Newport Folk Festival, where they bonded and became close friends. (Winter later produced Seeger's album Pete, which won a GRAMMY for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1996.)
Though Winter has endured his fair share of ups and downs in the music industry, he says he wouldn't have it any other way. To him, it's been more critical to stay true to his musical vision. He says that music, for which his appreciation grows more profound with each passing year, has been a "magic carpet," allowing him to travel to places he'd otherwise not have gone and to meet people, including his wife, he'd otherwise not have met. The couple has two daughters.
"I can't say our path has been easy," Winter says. "But it's been profoundly gratifying because I've always been able to keep somehow making the music I love, and I didn't have to try to fabricate something that would be more commercial. I've come to appreciate the challenges. You don't grow without challenge, so there's been no shortage of that for me."