Paul Winter & The Earth Band,
Prayer for the Wild Things
(Living Music, 1994)

Paul Winter achieved new heights of animal and musical synergy when he released the album Prayer for the Wild Things in 1994. Prayer is a masterful blend of clever, creative and soulful music with natural sounds that most people, if they were in a place to hear such things, would probably consider nothing more than background noise. While not ultimately as satisfying as Winter's masterwork, Whales Alive!, which is perhaps the best use of natural sounds as pure melody, Prayer earns high marks for the sheer volume of animal songs, cries and rumbles which work their way into the improvisational compositions of Winter and his fellow musicians. The fact that they work so well makes this a must-have album for natural music enthusiasts.

This is by no means an "environments" album, simply laying a layer of ambient music over recorded animal sounds. This is real music, and the animals recorded here are as vital to the sound as the saxophone, cello and other instruments employed in its making.

Winter derived inspiration for this album from the Beverly Doolittle painting of the same name. Doolittle, a fan of Winter's music, issued the invitation to create a companion album to her work, and the painting and album were originally available only as a package. Fortunately for those who cannot afford Doolittle's artwork (and believe me, it's well worth the price for those who have the means), the album was later released for individual sales.

Like Winter, who weaves natural sounds into his music, Doolittle often conceals animal images in her paintings -- hiding a bear realistically in the bushes in one, turning a craggy outcropping of rock into a proud eagle's head, transforming a spray of flowers into a flight of birds and reflecting a woodland Indian by the waterside back as his totem bear. So when Doolittle concealed 34 animal spirits in her painting, Prayer for the Wild Things, it was Winter's challenge to do the same musically.

The album employs an amazing array of bird and animal sounds -- 27 in all, and each listed as members of Winter's Earth Band. So if you've ever had a yen to hear the musical talents of an elk, buffalo, grizzly bear, Canada goose, raven, whooping crane, ruffed grouse or other wild thing, this is definitely worth a listen for novelty's sake alone. Winter has worked each into the album's 22 tracks according to its relative skill and sound; some are merely background, others are musical accents and some are an integral part of the melody (as are the humpback whales on Whales Alive! and the whale, wolf and eagle on Common Ground).

The album opens with the sounds of wind and raven leading into the somber "Eagle Mountain," a slow and stately prelude to the coming montage. Although this album is clearly a celebration of the natural world, much of the music is slow and tinged with melancholy -- a feeling accentuated by reading Winter's liner notes about the devastation, at times borderline extinction, among many species represented here.

"Buffalo Prairie" is a melancholy solo featuring Dennis Smylie on contrabass clarinet. He is accompanied only by occasional buffalo grunts and the calls of wild sandhill cranes, plus the primal percussion rhythms of Glen Velez and Gordon Gottleib representing the thundering herds which once crossed the American prairies.

Joe Urbinato couples his bassoon with a groaning, growly mountain lion for "Cougar Bassoon," and Winter composed his soprano sax solo "Osprey" while serenading an osprey fishing in the river, and the osprey and various morning birds made their own contributions to Winter's performance.

Gottleib provides African percussion rhythms on "Antelope Dreams of Her African Cousins," a tune featuring Winter on sax, Eugene Friesen on cello and a lone pronghorn antelope calf doing its chirpy thing. Cellist Friesen and percussionist Jamey Haddad work with the peculiar buzzing that bear cubs made after feeding in "Grizzly Bear Cubs with Their Mom After Breakfast." (A fairly descriptive title, don't you think?)

Except for the humming of just-fed grizzly bear cubs, all animals were recorded in the wild. Winter, in the liner notes, said he developed the music for this album by playing in the wild as well, allowing sounds and inspiration to come to him with nature's own sense of timing. Many of Winter's solos were recorded on location at Gates of the Mountains and Glacier National Park, both in Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, to achieve that natural, unpredictable air. One of the best results of this is "Loon on Mud Pond," recorded by Winter in Glacier National Park with the help of a very cooperative loon.

Winter recorded "Elk Horns" near Antelope Creek in Yellowstone, using his sax to call up the buglings of a bull elk in rutting season. Later, John Clark added a gorgeous solo on the French horn, which Winter believes is the elk's kindred instrument. The tune "North Fork Wolves in the Midnight Rain" is exactly what the title suggests: Winter playing sax in the rainy forest and the chorus of wolves who responded to his cry.

When an animal featured in Doolittle's painting wasn't cooperatively vocal enough for recording purposes, Winter improvised. In "Moose Walk," for instance, the contrabass clarinet (again played by Smylie) evokes the image of the moose ambling through the willow flats. As he strolls, the moose passes a startlingly musical series of woodland birds: the greater prairie chicken, belted kingfisher, willow ptarmigan, meadowlark, trumpeter swans and Swainson's thrush.

In "Night into Dawn," the band invokes the spirits of moose, buffalo, grizzly, mountain goat, elk, mountain lion and wolf via their counterpart instruments: contrabass clarinet, heckelphone, cello, English horn, French horn, bassoon and soprano sax, respectively. This is improvisation at its best. The instruments seem to being working at cross purposes, representing animals who certainly don't gather 'round a tree to sing in unison in the wild, and yet the sounds blend together in fantastic harmony.

Also making a guest appearance on Prayer is Arlie Neskahi and the White Eagle Singers, performing a superb Native American chant and dance along with percussion by Winter and Glen Velez in "Round Dance." The chanters return near the album's end for "Dance of All Beings," this time accompanied by Velez's percussion, Winter on sax, Paul Halley on organ and Russ Landau on bass. It's not a musical combination I'd have considered, but it works -- like so many of Winter's efforts to merge disparate cultural sounds -- incredibly well.

Prayer for the Wild Things is a phenomenal accomplishment, a musical celebration which truly is a spiritual homage to music and the environment. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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