Steinman on Consort
The Joy of Winter's Humanity
by Jim Steinman '69
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