In American Bandstand terms, the soothing instrumental compositions of Paul Winter haven’t got a great beat and you can’t dance to them—not on a polished parquet floor, anyway. Instead, Winter’s fans, who tend to be cerebral types, claim to move joyfully on the dance floors of their souls, transported by the warm, floating tones of his soprano saxophone. They don’t just listen to the music; they live to it.
Winter’s music, in concert as well as on popular LPs such as Canyon, Common Ground and Icarus, features graceful, swooping sounds and lines that are considered by his fans—and intended by him—to be a spiritual balm. The New Age music of which it is part—sometimes called healing music—is often Eastern-tinged, entrancing, conducive to yoga and meditation. Among its superstars are high-tech synthesists like Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre and Japan’s Kitaro. Though Winter’s music may be easily confused with mellow jazz, there are those who perceive in it a call to higher ground. “I am amazed by the letters we get,” says Winter, 47, founder and guiding light of the five-member Paul Winter Consort. One note came from a woman whose search along the consciousness circuit had led her to Big Sur’s Esalen Institute and there to a music-improv workshop set up by Winter. She told him of her “miraculous transformation” by the workshop and said it had saved her faltering marriage. Another admirer confessed that during a concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where Winter is artist-in-residence, she had “cried quietly with joy…like someone who’s been lonesome for a long, long time and finds a dear friend.”
Such reactions are by no means unique. “The goal of my music,” says Winter, “is not to have my fans celebrate me but to celebrate themselves. People have played our music at their weddings, at funeral services or in hospices where the dying are cared for. A number of people have brought to concerts their babies who they told me were born to one of our albums. I even met one woman in California who said she and her husband used our music in their divorce hearings. They wanted it to be a loving experience.”
Winter’s illustrious 25-year career—which has evolved from bebop through bossa nova to jazz and New Age—is most closely associated with the fight to save a more basic relationship: the marriage between mankind and nature. Winter’s commitment, which predates by many years the trend toward star-studded, quick-hit humanitarian videos, earned him a World Environment Day award from a United Nations environmental agency two years ago. “We have to learn to live in harmony with nature and her constituents,” he says, “with the forests, animals, oceans, air, ourselves. We are making global war on nature, and we have to declare an armistice.”
Winter’s personal peacekeeping mission is the preservation of the wilderness. He has performed in concert to benefit the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the UN and Greenpeace. He is best known for recording, in natural settings, jazz meditations on the haunting cries of the wolf, the baby harp seal and the humpback whale. Uninspired by recording studios and conventional concert arenas, he has taken his quest for the ultimate music habitat to the farthest reaches of the globe. To record animal voices responding to his music for Callings, he trekked, over the course of three years, to Newfoundland, British Columbia, El Salvador and Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, playing his sax to various species of sea mammals.
Each year Winter schedules concerts to coincide with the winter and summer solstices. Last Dec. 21 the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was packed for the moment—5:08 p.m.—when the sun moved farthest from the Northern Hemisphere and the Paul Winter Consort began its performance of Grand Canyon Sunrise, exploiting the vast church’s resonance. Last spring, playing in Oregon in support of a group working to save virgin timber-lands from loggers, Winter performed at the base of a natural amphitheater on a crest of the Cascade Mountains. “People had to travel 17 miles up a logging road to hear us,” he says. “I had always dreamed of doing a concert hike. Leaves are amazing sound reflectors.”
For his recent LP Canyon, Winter and the Consort rafted down the Colorado River three times to use the Grand Canyon as a recording studio. The sessions, which required a crew of 27 to help with more than five tons of supplies and equipment, continue to echo on the jazz charts after 10 months. Recording in such grandiose solitude, says Winter, “revives a sense of wonder. Your body resonates with the sounds, your mind slows down. You are brought back into the Now, in balance, aligned, in love with life. I want my music not to be about nature, but to be nature. Music has a great joining value. It should be like water, in that it bathes you in sound, dissolves fear and makes you feel whole again.”
While it is tempting to resist Winter’s Zen-inflected pronouncements as the timeworn homilies of a diehard hippie, he is regarded as a genuine pioneer in a field rich in poseurs. “Winter is often referred to as the grandfather of New Age music,” says music critic-deejay John Schaefer. “He’s had, for 15 or 20 years, many of the same concerns that are just now becoming real trendy. Some of these New Age liner notes are just blathering doggerel—clichés that don’t wash. But he is different. He’s got hold of something that speaks to a lot of people. He’s rooted in reality, not just out there communing with the spheres. He’s walking a real fine line, but he’s not an anachronism. The movement is catching up to him.”
Winter objects when his acoustic music is labeled New Age—which is, at its worst, a bland, synthesizer-based Muzak for transcendental yuppies. “To me there is a vast difference between meditation of trance and meditation of awareness,” says Winter. “Our music is not background, not for trances, not a soporific. Awareness is what Zen is about and what our music is about.”
Crunching twigs and brush underfoot while walking through the woods on his 77-acre retreat near Litchfield, Conn., Winter says that much of his work in the ’60s and ’70s was simply ignored by the big-label record companies that were supposed to distribute it. “I never wanted to walk in the door of a major label again,” he says. “Selling 70,000 units once meant something, but after Saturday Night Fever [sold more than 15 million double albums in its first year] the business went berserk commercially. Blissfully it crashed, and out of that have come the smaller, independent, so-called New Age labels like Windham Hill and Jem. I say let a hundred labels bloom. These are the fumbling attempts of a new species to survive.”
In 1980 Winter created his own label, Living Music Records, backed by a few well-heeled “believers.” The first releases mired the company in six-figure debt, but made him, he says, “a more vigilant warrior.” The fiscal samurai who brought the label to solvency was Richard Perl, a young, ambitious Columbia Business and Law School graduate who has run the company and managed Winter’s career for the past 21 months. Perl found that his intensely independent client “just was not grounded in doing business traditionally. He needed someone who found the business end as much of an art form as he finds the music.”
Perl says his strategy was to begin “targeting and networking the people who just get what Paul’s all about. This is very potent and powerful music. He’s one man who’s got vision—the vibrations—that encompass what might really work on this planet. People get to a higher place. He’s a global citizen.” As a slightly more earthy incentive, Perl offered stock to would-be investors and transformed the label’s debts into equity. He recently nailed down a distribution deal whereby all Living Music LPs will be handled by Windham Hill Records and A&M Records. But Winter’s integrity won’t be compromised by association with the muscular majors. “We retain total autonomy,” Paul insists. “It’s our message they’ll carry. They won’t tell us who we are.”
According to Perl, Winter works at his own pace and doesn’t care to be pushed. “Paul,” says Perl, “is freaked out by anger. He doesn’t understand it. He likes to keep all of his options open until the last minute—he really wants to be in the space of the moment. Paul does not like the words ‘deadline’ or ‘budget.’ And he’s a perfectionist. He wrote 10 drafts of the Canyon liner notes. That can drive me batty.”
Winter will often spend as much as a week on his Litchfield land with no visitors. To help stay “Zen-clear,” as Perl puts it, Winter scribbles and files hundreds of notes on assignment pads, capturing fleeting thoughts and ideas, all of which are later transcribed by a secretary. The flow begins early, when he awakens in the predawn hush, does his yoga and Zazen meditation, then strolls or cross-country skis on the land. For years Zen has been the spiritual rudder in both his life and his music. He likes to sit cross-legged by the rushing brook that snakes though the rolling acres, grooving on wind-chime overtones and inhaling the stillness. The solitude has a healing effect, says a friend. “It gives Paul a high and nurtures him. He doesn’t go for small talk and hanging out. When he’s alone he’s often very happy.”
Never married, Winter recently met Rhonda Larson, a 24-year-old classical flutist from the University of Idaho at his improvisational workshop on campus. They met again in New York and were soon making music together—literally—in the cathedral. “I was immediately attracted to the beauty of her playing,” says Winter. “It seemed natural that she come to the farm.” Says Rhonda: “I was reluctant to leave the West, because I was afraid of being destroyed by the big city. Paul and I are very kindred spirits. It sounds corny, but there is something deep that bonds us.”
Life on the farm is lived with a simplicity Thoreau would approve. Winter doesn’t own a television set and hasn’t seen a movie in five years. On occasion he will watch TV “for 15 minutes in a motel somewhere, like an aborigine,” but was amazed when he heard that the average American watches six or seven hours a day. “It astounded me,” he says. “That meant some character had to watch 14 hours a day to make up for me.”
Winter rarely listens to contemporary music (“It’s important not to be influenced by too much else”), and his diet—meatless, boozeless and “kinda macrobiotic”—is equally free of unwelcome diversions. “The key is balance, yin-yang, expansive-contractive,” he explains in his sometimes opaque verbal shorthand. Even his once voracious literary appetite—for books on nature, evolution and spiritualism, and for the poetry of Gary Snyder—has shrunk. “I love novels, but I’d rather live one,” he says.
Winter grew up in Altoona, Pa., the son of a piano tuner who ran a music store with his brother. As a child, Paul, on the clarinet, and his older sister, Diane, at the piano, played duets for local civic groups. “I got virtuosity and fame out of my system early,” he says with a laugh. By the time he finished high school he had played in his own “German oom-pah” group and moved on to dance band and Dixieland music. When he was a junior at Northwestern, his sextet won first prize in a college jazz festival and went on to tour Latin America and play the Kennedy White House. After seven LPs in three years with Columbia, the Paul Winter Sextet was dropped by the label, and by 1967 Winter had put together the Consort in its first incarnation. Even then he was going against the flow. “I was in San Francisco for the summer of love but I never got into drugs,” he says. “Pot fogged your brain, and you couldn’t remember horn charts.”
What did blow Winter’s mind was his growing fascination with whales and wolves, an obsession he began to explore after leaving New York to rough it in a $175-a-month stone milk house in Redding, Conn. In the animals’ cries, which he mimicked on sax, he discovered his own true calling: the fusion of music and a passionate concern for preserving wildlife. His description of the wolf borders on self-portraiture. “Wolves can’t be tamed,” says Winter. “You can socialize them, but you can’t make them dependent on you or make them come when you call. If they’re not on a lead, they’ll just take off. And they’re fast, real hard to catch once they leave captivity.”
Winter himself prowls restlessly between between “total immersion and isolation.” The Consort—with Rhonda on flute—recently finished Winter-song, and last month he traveled to Lake Baikal in Siberia to record a unique species of freshwater seal. Still churning in Winter’s imagination are plans for albums of African land mammals and the wild birds of the Amazon.
“Once you’ve lived anywhere in nature,” he says, “then anywhere on the planet is home. Nature is always there to heal and renew. There have been countless nights when I’ve gone to bed not knowing how the band or the label would survive another day. Then I would wake up to the stillness, watch the sun rise and go for a long walk through the woods. And I’d get my grounding and a look at the big picture. Then I’d return to the house with some idea for a solution, with the spirit necessary to carry us through.”