Paul Winter,
Icarus
(Epic, 1972; re-released by Living Music)

Sometimes, it's fun to go back to the beginning and check out a musician's roots. A good example of Paul Winter's early years can be found on Icarus, first released in the heady, post-psychedelic era of 1972 and re-released in the early '80s (and still available) through Winter's production company, Living Music.

For a Paul Winter novice, this isn't a good place to start. The melodies aren't as freewheeling and graceful as they are on later albums, the harmonies and interaction between musicians isn't as tight. Winter is still a treat with his improvisational composition style, and he wields his soprano saxophone very well -- but still, it's a fraction of the talent he'll exhibit over the next few decades. So, if you're new to Paul Winter, leap ahead a few years for the 1978 release Common Ground -- a landmark in Winter's musical development -- or try out something newer like Prayer for the Wild Things (1994) or Celtic Solstice (1999).

For Winter fans, however, Icarus is a treat. There are kernels here of things to come, hints of the wildly original stylings which will help define Winter's unique brand of Earth-based music.

"Sunwheel" is a perfect example of a tune from its time. The strolling bass line and "wah-wah" organ say "This is an early '70s tune" as clearly as the clothes the band is wearing on the original, sun-prismed album cover (which Living Music discarded -- probably wisely -- with its re-release). Ralph Towner's guitar licks certainly sound like someone influenced by the Doors and early Yes. "Ode to a Fillmore Dressing Room" makes good use of percussionist Collin Walcott's skill on a sitar.

"Whole Earth Chant," with its primitive percussion beat and the hints of an elegant organ backdrop, is a good example of the direction Winter will be heading in future albums. Winter's sax and David Darling's jazzy cello in particular interact with amazing freshness ... and still, it makes me wonder how great this tune would have been with future Consort member Paul Halley adding his deft touch on organ. (For some of Halley's best work, give Winter's Whales Alive! a try.)

"Chehalis and Other Voices" is a nicely done conversation among instruments. I could do without the Ralph Towner song "The Silence of a Candle" (the vocals are weak), but it's nice to hear the first appearance of "Minuit" -- a delightful little song from Guinea in West Africa which perpetually reappears on Winter albums including Common Ground and Concert for the Earth. Besides Winter's own lead vocals, the tune boasts an intriguing choral arrangement which lays layers of sound over an appropriately simple guitar line. Another reoccurring tune is the title track, "Icarus," which has become something of a theme song for the Paul Winter Consort over the years.

All in all, Icarus is a solid package but it lacks the glory of Winter's later work. This album is for the Paul Winter completist more than it is for the casual listener.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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