Paul Winter:
Celtic soundscapes

An interview by Tom Knapp,
April 1999

Paul Winter has made a life's work of exploring the music of the natural world. He has earned a lot of notice over the years by employing the sounds of nature -- the songs of humpback whales, the mournful howling of wolves, the cries of eagles and the ever-flowing waters of the Colorado River -- in his music. He rarely uses them as background ambience, either; rather, Winter blends them seamlessly into the music of his own soprano saxophone and the instruments of his musical Consort.

But the music of nature includes the music of people, and Winter in recent years has begun delving more and more into the ethnic sounds of various world cultures. His album Earthbeat, for instance, explores the rhythms of Russian choral folk songs, while Prayer for the Wild Things digs into Native American styles.

Now, Winter has made a connection with the Celts, particularly the uilleann pipes of Ireland.

He first heard the distinctive sound of Irish bagpipes in 1971. Having heard of the instrument from a friend who knew his passion for double-reed instruments, Winter took a weekend off while recording his early album Icarus in London to fly up to Dublin and hear a handful of elderly pipers playing in the Piper's Club, conveniently located near the Guinness Brewery. He was, as he wrote in his liner notes to his latest album, Celtic Solstice, "enthralled by the petulant and bluesy sounds coming from these strange-looking instruments."

But Winter's path took him away from Irish music for nearly two decades. His interest was reawakened in 1988, when he met Irish sean nos singer Noirin Ni Riain at an earth celebration at Rotterdam Cathedral. That chance encounter led to many collaborations over the years, including Winter's participation on Riain's 1996 album Celtic Soul. Through Riain he met flutist Joannie Madden, through Madden he met Solas singer Karan Casey. And then he tracked down uilleann piper Davy Spillane, whose recordings Winter had heard previously.

At some point, an album by Winter's new circle of Irish friends became inevitable. Celtic Solstice is by no means a traditional Irish album, drawing heavily from Winter's own jazz and worldbeat roots, but he and a dedicated group of musicians have managed to invent their own form of Celtic mood. Besides Winter on soprano sax, the album includes Spillane on uilleann pipes and low whistle, Madden on whistles and flute, Casey on vocals, Eileen Ivers on fiddle, Paul Halley on pipe organ and piano, Jerry O'Sullivan on uilleann pipes, Carol Thompson on the Celtic harp and the Welsh triple harp, Zan McLeod on guitar, Bakithi Kumalo on bass, Austin McGrath on bodhran and Jamey Haddad on percussion.

During a telephone interview with Winter on April 20, 1999, Winter recalled what first drew him to the sound of uilleann pipes. "Probably it was the same thing that drew me to the sound of Charlie Parker's saxophone, the humpback whales or the voice of Joao Gilberto," Winter said. "There's some quality of the soul of life that touched me, and the uilleann pipes have a very bluesy, earthy and poignant quality."

While one might wonder how the pipes would interact with the usual ensemble of instruments in Winter's Consort, Winter said he was thrilled how easily the sounds and musicians meshed. "They felt absolutely at home," he said. "In my original Consort thirty years ago, I had English horn, which is another double-reed instrument. ... So having a double reed was very natural." Spillane was particularly natural in the group, Winter added. "It felt like he'd always been playing with us."

Winter's connection to Irish music is equally as natural, he said. His interest in the culture has been growing for ten years, he said -- a passion he said was ignited by his friendship with Riain. "Noirin made a deep impression on us," he said. "She really opened the door for us to the culture of Ireland. And it gradually evolved for me. ... There are a few places in my years of travel around the world that have really felt like a second home: Brazil, Israel, Russia, Japan and now Ireland. It's like my home keeps expanding to include all of these communities, and we keep revisiting them from time to time."

That doesn't mean Winter plans to focus exclusively on Irish music in the future. In fact, it might be a while before he gets back to it again. "I've been to Africa only once, and I'd love to spend fifty years there," he said, a touch of wistfulness entering his voice. "There's a huge array of magical music in that vast continent."

The next album he expects to complete will be called Solstice Tree, focusing on the Tree of Life and the winter solstice. "It will include a wide array of voices from around the world, probably the most extensive community yet," he said eagerly. But Winter is eager to get on with a lot of musical projects right now. "I've got about fifty in the works, all kinds of different projects we're working towards," he said. One especially close to his heart is a planned album for children which he wants to co-produce with his 2 1/2-year-old daughter Keetu.

He also wants to continue jamming with fellow musicians, letting the music lead him through improvisation to places he might not have expected to go. "Any time you jump into the unknown, you run the risk of getting lost," Winter said. "But after you've done it a while and have a chance to sound it out, you don't have too much fear when you get lost. You know you'll come out the other side."

The uncertainty of improvisational music is half of the fun, he explained. "You don't always create magic when you improvise together. You never can predict it. It's like the weather, the randomness of nature."

[ by Tom Knapp ]