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01/30/13

The Paul Winter Sextet
Count Me In: 1962/1963
Living Music

Think Paul Winter and what probably comes to mind is the longtime leader of the Consort, the group that essentially spliced new age and world music in the late ’60s, even if those two genres didn’t quite exist yet. Winter’s annual concerts at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, his recordings of humpback whale song, his performances in the Grand Canyon and other exotic locales—none of it suggests that this saxophonist and composer once led a formidable jazz band. But he did, and this double-disc collection is the proof.

With thumbs-ups from Dizzy Gillespie and John Hammond, Winter was signed to Columbia Records in 1961 and the following year played the White House at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy. Winter’s was the first jazz group ever to get that cushy gig. That concert is the centerpiece of this collection of early Paul Winter jazz. The sextet swings, they finesse some trendy bossa, they tinker with bop and earn the polite applause of the president’s guests.

The White House concert, historical as it may be, only comprises roughly a quarter of the package though, and it’s not even the most memorable music here. Winter, playing alto and soprano saxes, was more inclined to be adventurous when not in front of bejeweled dignitaries, and the studio tracks feature a band of solid pros (among them trumpeter Dick Whitsell, pianist Warren Bernhardt and a revolving cast of others) equally content to burn it up (gritty blues and forceful bop) or take it down a notch (more bossa nova). The second disc, cut a year later and including Jay Cameron on bari, Chuck Israels on bass and Ben Riley playing drums, plus the aforementioned (with guest spots from bassist Cecil McBee, flutist Jeremy Steig and guitarist Gene Bertoncini), is particularly potent, invariably generating the question of whether Winter would have made his mark within more mainstream jazz had he not eventually discovered his true calling.

Originally published in January/February 2013
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