Paul Winter & Paul Halley,
Whales Alive!
(Living Music, 1987)

I had heard whales "sing" before. It was at one time in vogue for musicians to slap a humpback whale or two in the background for atmosphere. But Paul Winter has gone a step further, treating recorded whalesong as the melody and the human musicians as harmonists. The result is surprisingly good, even to someone who has long been a fan of humpback whale recordings.

Whales Alive! is, oddly enough, a byproduct of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The movie, directed by "Spock" star Leonard Nimoy, featured two Earth-saving humpback whales, and Nimoy approached cetacean biologist Roger Payne -- best known for his recordings of humpback whales -- for the necessary sound effects. Payne introduced Nimoy to his friend, Winter ... and somehow that meeting led to this recording.

To make the album, Payne sat in the organ loft of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, playing his recorded whalesongs on a tape player. Organist Paul Halley, a long-time collaborator and friend of Winter's, improvised organ harmonies to mesh with the whale melodies. Winter, sitting down in the cathedral nave, listened to both organ and whales and wove his own melody and harmony lines into the sound on his soprano saxophone. It is an incredible example of improvisational recording, and Winter was careful to give the whales equal credit for the tunes' composition. (Winter, writing in the liner notes, said the whales are "such inventive melodists, always taking us in new and unexpected musical directions.") Nimoy later added passionate recitations of old and new literature about whales, and additional members of Winter's consort added extra layers of harmony and rhythm to complete the recording.

The outcome of this unusual collaboration is amazing. The whalesong sweeps and swells in patterns no human throat could duplicate, wrenching emotion from the soul of anyone with an appreciation for the beauty of nature in all its myriad manifestations. The instrumentations successfully match the melody in quality, emotion and pure musicianship. The whales, I think, would be pleased.

Not to detract from the other members of Winter's consort -- the musicians do excellent service here, as many of them have on other Winter albums -- but Whales Alive! has three major stars: Winter's sax, Halley's organ and whatever whale (or whales) dutifully had sung into Payne's microphones. The exception is "George and Gracie," a tune named for the two whales featured in Star Trek IV, which is a two-minute chorus of whales accompanied only by Winter on a giant talking drum.

Winter returns to his sax and Ted Moore takes over percussion for a wonderful, wild and frenetic performance of "Queequeg and I/The Water is Wide." "Humphrey's Blues," named for a humpback briefly trapped in the San Francisco Bay at one time, is a very soulful, bluesy sax and organ duet ... joined by a very soft and subtle whale harmony.

"Turning," a piano and sax duet by Halley and Winter, preluded by a very brief passage from Gary Snyder's "Mother Earth, Her Whales," is the only track on the album without whalesong.

Winter reprises two tunes from earlier albums: "Ocean Dream" from Common Ground and "Lullaby from the Great Mother Whale for the Baby Seal Pups" from Callings. (The latter was reincarnated as "Whales Weep Not!" ... a much less cumbersome title.) The tunes, good before, are improved by the new arrangements. In "Ocean Dream" there is a particularly lovely passage where the other musicians drop out, leaving Winter to echo a single whale's cry.

Oddly, one of my favorite tracks on this album doesn't involve Winter at all. "Concerto for Whale and Organ" is, as you might guess from the title, nothing but the whale and some incredible work by Halley. Majestic doesn't begin to describe the grandeur of this amazing, inspiring piece.

The album's overture, "Whales Weep Not!" and the finale, "The Voyage Home," approach "Concerto" in majesty, bookending the album with a heart-swelling passion.

And let's talk about Leonard Nimoy. Love or hate Star Trek, there's no denying that Nimoy has a deep, resonant voice very appropriate for this sort of emotive, dramatic reading. The words of poetry and prose -- chosen from a broad range of whale-related literature -- roll from his tongue like honey from a worn wooden spoon. It's possible to get lost in those words, to close your eyes, push the distractions of your world into a corner for a while and just soak in the beauty of language.

The literary passages are all extremely well-chosen, ranging from D.H. Lawrence's "Whales Weep Not!" and Elizabeth Kemf's "Dawnwatch" to Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Roger Payne's own "The Voyage Home." While Whales Alive! would be a treat to hear without the spoken text, Nimoy's contribution adds a layer of excellence that bumps this album up from the ranks of the very good to the level of the absolutely phenomenal.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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