Paul Winter Consort,
Solstice Gems
(Living Music, 2002)

To fans of the Paul Winter Consort, there are a lot of familiar names on this 2-CD set commemorating 20 years of Winter Solstice celebrations at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Ah, you might say to yourself, a compilation set of stuff I already have. If so, you're only part right. Of the 30 tracks spread over these discs, 16 have been previously released on five Living Music CDs. Even if you have them all, there are 14 previously unreleased tracks, an entire CD worth of good music.

Saxophonist Paul Winter is joined by the core of his consort: Paul Halley, Eugene Friesen, Glen Velez ... if I were to write down every name, this review would run far too long. There are also oodles of guests, my favorites of whom are the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, who provide the most spirited moments in this marvelous compilation of music. There is a joy in their singing that is unmatched. Among the other guests in this 20 year's worth of concerts are Susan Osborn, Arto Tuncboyaciyan, whose vocals are utterly mystical, Davy Spillane's uilleann pipes, the guitar of Oscar Castro-Neves, Mickey Hart's RAMU, which has to be heard to be believed, Pete Seeger and Noirin Ni Riain.

Although I generally choke at the appellation of "new age," I always make concessions for Winter and his various groupings. There is nearly always something interesting going on musically here, which is more than can be said for most new age music. Perhaps it helps that Winter started out in jazz, one of the most demanding forms of popular music, and that discipline serves him well here. A few tracks may strike the listener as uninspired, but most of this music is rich and rewarding. The echoing, booming acoustic of the cathedral becomes wearing after a time, so I found it best to listen to only a few tracks at one sitting, but if it doesn't bother you, by all means indulge. The only other negative I had about this album was the mass "howling" by the audience during "Wolf Eyes," one of my favorite Winter pieces, and perhaps the finest blend of animal and human music since Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales. It might have been extremely cool if you were there, but on disc it comes off as just silly. Fortunately, it's immediately followed by "Minuit," another one of the Consort's finest moments.

All in all, the two CDs provide a delightful two hours' worth of music for the Paul Winter fan, and a good introduction to the Consort, its many changing members and the history of the group for those who haven't yet discovered the many joys of Winter's very distinctive brand of music.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 19 July 2003

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