Paul Winter,
Earthbeat
(Living Music, 1987)

Paul Winter shifted away from his use of natural sounds in his music for his 1987 album Earthbeat, focusing instead on the native sounds of the Russian people. Combining the musical skills of his regular consort of talented musicians with the Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers of Moscow, Winter has created a whole new style of music.

The Russian choral group, made up of 14 male and female vocalists, preserves and performs the traditions of Russian village music, some dating back over 1,000 years. After hearing them perform during a tour of the Soviet Union in 1986 (Remember before the Cold War ended and the U.S.S.R. was still a world power?), Winter cut a deal with the leaders of Melodiya, the Soviet state record company, to arrange a join production. It was, Winter, writes in his liner notes, to be the first album of original music created by Americans and Russians.

Working around a framework of the traditional choral pieces, Winter and company built additional layers of improvisational melodies and percussion. The result is at times startling.

The best of the bunch of the first track, "Kurski Funk," which takes a hopping traditional song from the Kursk region of southern Russia and adds new music by Winter, keyboardist Paul Halley and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. Beginning with the groundwork of a lively choral folk melody, the song is supplemented by percussion, soprano saxophone and other instrumentation which completely transforms the tune.

"The Horse Walked in the Grass" (great title, eh?) is a traditional Cossack song from the Don region, and the lively, 'round-the-fire kind of rowdiness is a good counterpoint to the new melodies and harmonies added by Winter, Halley and cellist Eugene Friesen. Winter, Halley and Friesen also added their touch to "Steambath," a traditional wedding song from Pskov in northern Russia, and "Green Dreams," a pleasantly discordant wedding song from Belgorod in southern Russia.

"Song for the World" combines traditional pan pipes from southern Russia with a lofty Halley composition. The almost regal sound of the chorus is punctuated by Winter's sweeping saxophone, percussion and vocal outbursts which are woven into an amazing tapestry of sound. Winter sets the melody line at the beginning of "Down in Belgorod," followed by first one, then the whole group of singers for a danceable tune.

Another dance tune follows when the Cossacks return for "Epic Song." The song from northern Caucausus surely must tell of great deeds, accented by the additions of Winter and Castro-Neves. The album wraps up with "Garden of the Earth," a rousing traditional Russian anthem with music added by Winter and English words written by Halley.

Winter also did fall back on a few of the environmental tricks which made albums like Common Ground, Whales Alive! and Prayer for the Wild Things so exceptional, working the sound of an Alaskan tundra wolf and a Russian loon into a few tracks. But there's no doubting that it's the Russian folk songs which are the star of Earthbeat.

Now, let's be honest here. If this were an album just of the Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers, I'd probably have given it one or two listens and then set it aside. As good as they are, the group is working with a style of music which just doesn't excite me very much. It's a testament to Winter's musical ingenuity that he's made something so very palatable from that foundation.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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