Steinman on Consort

The Joy of Winter's Humanity

by '69
Amherst Student

I think that the most difficult think to accomplish in music criticism is to make the leap from the "mind" of music, the artfulness, to the "heart" of music, the soul, the art itself. All we can use are words, which are fairly effective in dealing with the technical accomplishments of a work of music, since the standards in that respect are relatively fixed and can be judged somewhat objectively. But words are much less effective when dealing with the feeling, the soul of music. How do we define the humanity, evaluate the nobility? In music we have only sounds from which to draw the heartbeat.

In that area, it is pretty easy to start using loose language, silly metaphors, imprecise adjectives. But that is a risk worth taking if you're trying to express the intensity of feeling that a particular musical experience provided for you, and that is certainly a risk I think worth taking in trying to capture just a fragment of the joy felt hearing the Paul Winter Contemporary Consort, who gave an unforgettable magnificent concert Saturday night in Buckly Hall.

First of all, let's get rid of labels. Paul Winter's Consort is not jazz. It is not that simple to describe. It can't be accurately labeled. It contains elements of jazz certainly, progressive and traditional, and also draws heavily from African, East European, Israeli, South American folk music as well as classical music from Bach to Bartok.

The group consists of alto sax, cello, classical, 12 string, and electric guitar (all played by one man), alto flute, English horn, bass, and a wide assortment of percussion ranging from the conventional drum set to a fantastic collection of Brazilian, African, and Israeli folk instruments.

First, from a technical aspect alone, the group was overwhelming, their versatility remarkable. They did a lot of South American music, ranging from beautifully lyric, uncommercialized bossa nova to wild carnival rhythm explosions. There was a hypnotic suite from "Black Orpheus" that ended with every musician on a percussion instrument in an onslaught of rhythmic momentum and energy beautiful to feel. Ruth Ben-Zvi, the guest artist from Tel Aviv, played a solo on the darbuke, a small clay drum, that was astonishing in its evocative and sensual blend of widely varying tones, rhythmic counterpoints, and delicate, precise melody.

Richard Bok, cellist, played two solos, one which he wrote based on improvisation, the other as part of a piece based on a Bartok melody in 7-8. His own solo was strongly influenced by the Bartok-Kodaly school, and both were rich in melodic breadth and slashing rhythmic fire.

Both solos were flashy and exciting but always cohesive, disciplined, and emotionally powerful, as were all solos in the consort. The rhythm section, drums, bass (played by Eugene Wright, Brubeck's old bassist) played a couple of lyrical, supple selections, a Miles Davis selection ("Milestones") and a "Porgy and Bess" medley, which showcased guitarist Gene Bertoncini's pure tone and graceful imagination. Bertoncini, in another piece, "Ragaputri", Gandhi's favorite meditation music, let loose with the most vibrant twelve-string guitar playing I've heard since Peter Townshend's work on a recent album by the "Who," "The Who Sell Out."

At one point the Consort risked what might have been a contrived theatrical "bit" and brought it off beautifully. They did a free improvisation based on the scale used to tune the Japanese koto, the pentatonic scale, the minor without the fourth and the seventh. They requested that the lights be turned out, and while they improvised, the players went unnoticed into the audience and played from many parts of the hall. The effect was not cheap or artificial in the least; rather, it was surprising, strangely moving, peacefully surrounding. In every thing they did, Winter's consort conveyed a deep sincerity, a natural joy, a strong desire to communicate, and a warm humanity. There, that's the risk. How do you prove something has "humanity?" Well, you don't. But I wish everyone could have been there Saturday to feel it.

True, he does not go into each individual style at great "length." He does one bossa nova, then an Israeli piece, then a Bartok etc … but each piece does have depth and a genuine feeling for its human roots. True, there are more specialized groups who can do each type of music better than Winter; that's to be expected. But Winter does it all … he does not exploit different styles, he explores them, seeks out the common meaning.

And all of this brings up one of the greatest risks the Winter Consort takes: they risk being nice to listen to, they risk being joyous, they risk being palatable even comfortable. They will not offend an audience or wrench their dark guts out. But they're not Easy Listening… or, if they are, then so is Mozart, Bach, Schubert, etc. If you look closely enough at any one piece the Consort does, there's plenty to find, a great deal of extraordinary musical achievement.

Most of the people I know who didn't like Winter, about five to be exact, were great jazz fans, purists maybe, all of whom I respect greatly. But I think there attitude is similar to that of many jazz men who still close their mind to rock with petty snobbishness and shallow stubbornness. If jazz is dead as an art form. I believe is so because of such thinking.

Jazz ceased to be aware of its audience, of its humanity … it was aware only of its self-imposed martyrdom, its introspection, its concept, its "depth" and "soul" which it wore like a wilted carnation. Jazz twisted itself within itself and stared womb-like at its own agonized rolls of flesh, while rock opened up free and wild and natural and was embraced by the outside limits. (I'm trying to speak of jazz as a surging artistic movement now, disregarding the monmental achievements of such giants as Coltrane, Coleman, Sun Ra, or Don Ellis … Miles Davis or Monk.)

Just as the Beatles assimilated and explored — so many established musical forms and joyously made them relevant and meaningful to a lot of people again, Paul Winter could pull off a similar trick … Groups roaming the country like rock bands playing folk music from around the world, playing Bach, playing Mozart, adapting, changing, switching, sorting out, turning classical music into a truly popular art once again. Turning jazz into something that can reach beyond the dark squinty-eyed tightly closed cellars, turning rock into street music for all ages … Artaud said of plays: "There are no masterpieces!" Stop respecting Shakespeare, stop standing in awe of Sophocles, stop worshiping Moliere. Make it live, turn it around, upside down, add, subtract, shorten, lengthen, add music, subtract words etc … Paul Winter is try-to make music live, take it out of the museums. Jazz is something more than study material, folk music is more than quaint ethnic curiosities, classical is more than cultural obligations …

Some felt there was something dishonest about Winter's Consort moving so swiftly from one style of music to the next … perhaps these people missed the bond to be found in all the music of the Paul Winter Contemporary Consort: humanity.

Source: Amherst Student archives


by '69
Amherst Student

Last weekend was a jazz weekend, yet someone who only reads the STUDENT wouldn't have known that. Yes, there was a concert on Saturday night by the "Paul Winter Contemporary Consort." I really needn't repeat that since the STUDENT reviewed it twice and nearly everyone on campus — it seemed — was there, out for the usual Saturday night festivities, kicks and good times. But there was also a very fine concert by the Harold McKinney Quintet on Friday night, two interesting workshops on Saturday and a concert by student groups on Sunday. All in all a very exciting weekend, the first of its kind (and hence, if for no other reason, worthy of mention) and one for which the efforts of Jim Meyer and especially Howie Conn should be commended. Without them, there never would have been one. Yet the STUDENT saw fit to mention only Paul Winter.

Apparently I am one of the "about five" people "who didn't like Paul Winter, at least according to Jim Steinman. I had better say now that I didn't like Winter as a "total, unified experience in listening" although there were parts in which I grooved on "the joys of humanity" (to put it in Steinmanesque). And I might add that I object to being written off as a "jazz purist". As Paul Farrell wrote in his review of Winter, '"Just about anything other than complete praise was met with 'Oh you're just a jazz fan' or 'You're a music snob.' "I don't believe that I'm either. Although I am primarily classically trained, I have listened to jazz for years and recently attempted to play some with various campus groups. Jim may also remember that last year I was not above playing with the group he was then with, the "Leaves of Grass".

Despite Paul's fine review of Winter, most of which I agree with completely, there is more that must be said in answer to Steinman. Experimentation is a good thing, and a very necessary thing in music now. But must we accept every experiment? Experiment implies looking for an answer. In this respect some experiments are successful, some failures. Or to put it another way, some find relevant answers, some don't. Steinman is prone to lauding any experiment because the intentions are worthy, but at the expense of discriminating between a find and a bag. Here he has shown this lack of discrimination by raving about Winter's unsuccessful experiment.

Unsuccessful experiment? Why? Because Winter offers nothing new. Nothing more than a musical variety show. Simply combining in one piece elements from various musical conceptions does not mean an exciting totality has been made. Steinman writes:

It (Paul Winter's music) contains elements of jazz certainly, progressive and traditional, and also draws heavily from African, East European, Israeli, as well as classical music from Bach to Bartok.

Any composer owes much to other composers — Bach owes much to baroque convention which preceded him. Stravinsky and the neoclassicists to Bach. Bird to Lester Young. The Stones to Lightnin' Hopkins. And so on. But the point here besides the truism that any great musician owes debts to others, is that in each of the cases mentioned the composer assimilated these roots. The elements are no longer important as copied elements, but as influences on composers and are only important as secondary elements. A great composer does not, like Paul Winter, merely add up a lot of various musical elements. The total work is not the sum of its (diverse) parts, but an entity with a direction and a conception of its own. Winter is a bit of Bartok, a bit of Bach a bit of jazz, a bit of Joannie Mitchells and Skitch Henderson. He has no musical conception, no entity. A cello solo, improvised (with great technical virtuosity) in the classical tradition is followed by a modified Bossa Nova piece in good Skitch Henderson tradition, followed by some Israeli drums. The improvised piece with the lights out I did like. But it is hardly worth the time spent to discover that a pentatonic scale makes a chord so that anyone can play anything so long as they stick to the notes of the scale. (Anyway, the thing that made it for me on that piece was Harold McKinney's spontaneous singing, completely unplanned and a surprise to Winter.) Does one "discovery" and it has been done before, except with modes instead of a five tone scale, especially in Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" — make everything else worth it? I don't see any successful experimentation here.

And I don't see any musical answers in much else. Winter is hung up on tone quality, mostly a low mellow one. So he uses alto flute, cello, English horn and alto sax. There isn't much variation here, or much interest. Bach's Sixth Brandenburg, or many sections from Mahler exploit the tone quality to much better use. And he is hung up on rhythm. About all Winter said in the hour and a half I listened to his workshop lecture was that a jazz drummer usually over-powered the solo lines (a point which I find not usually true). His solution is ridiculous : when the percussion plays, no one else does, and vice versa. All this leads to is further discontinuity and imbalance in the music.

But Steinman is right. The "mind" of music is not the thing. The "soul" is. That is not the technical analysis, but the feeling. And it is harder to write about that. However, there is a very relevant distinction to be made between music which is too mechanical and complex to be Appreciated and something to be listened to and music which is sophisticated enough to require a certain amount of listening, musical experience and discrimination to be appreciated. Winter's music is hardly mechanical and he is trying to move away from music which he feels is meaningless because too complex. But he has only come up with an eclectic melange which always offers something different and simple. No one gets bored. I gather that this is all Steinman means by the "Joy of Humanity:" that Winter's music is not too complex to be understood by more than save a handful of initiated nor is it played without feeling. Yet I found that all the written parts were stifled by a dedication to form and that the music lacks any sophistication. I don't believe that universal appeal means something is valuable. After all, glee club concerts and Richard Nixon have pretty universal appeal.

Enough of Paul Winter, or probably too much. I said a while back that other things happened last weekend and I meant notably the playing and presence of Harold McKinney. First of all the concert. Briefly, the concert was contemporary jazz, well played and played with a great deal of feeling. I really dug the introduction (by McKinney) to the Joannie Mitchells song Blue on Blues, and most of the solo work by Marcus Belgrave on trumpet. But the most exciting thing was to listen to and watch the way the group played together. McKinney on piano and Ike Daney on drums constantly exchanged ideas. But this was more than the usual trading of fours or alternating of ideas. They played the same phrase; one of them would start it, or interject something in the middle. Perhaps this sounds like picayune technicality. But one of my objections to marry jazz groups is that there is only trading of eight bar solos with little interaction or multiple improvisation. McKinney broke through that barrier; he played as a group. This despite the fact that the group was reading charts because they hadn't been together very long.

There is much, much more that may be said of the concert, but I have rambled on long enough already. Let it suffice to say that more sophisticated jazz has been played; but McKinney played with a lot of soul. The music hit your body and your mind. And it seemed to me to come much closer to the "joy of humanity" than many other things I have heard.

McKinney not only played. He spoke and he spoke well. He talked with us after the concert in Howie Conn's room. He spoke (to those of us who made it up) for over two hours on Saturday morning in the music building. He spoke with us and playing with anyone who was interested on Saturday night at Phi Psi. It is very important that he was available to students and one might wish that many other dignitaries — professors and visiting lecturers and so forth — could be as available and as dynamic. But McKinney said relevant things about his life and his music, although not in the blue ribbon college inflected speech of Paul Winter and most of us. He still said a great deal. It is very unfortunate that the STUDENT didn't have anything to say about all this and it seems more than mere oversight or simply layout problems. There were two reviews of Winter while McKinney was a much more important part of the weekend in every way. It seems that Winter, the successful, well-known experimentor is more worthy than McKinney, the little known, black man, who isn't playing for commercial success (as Winter admitted) but for the "joy" of it. The STUDENT talks often about Amherst's failures to the black man. But when a very dynamic man came to speak on an art form which is not only possibly the black man's most significant contribution to American culture, but possibly the only true American music, the STUDENT ignores him. This failure to notice what has been a significant cultural experience here is a major mistake.

Source: Amherst Student archives