A Steve Winwood show, like his career, spans 50 years of music history, from rock ’n’ roll’s roots in R&B through the jazz-infused jam rock of the late 1960s and early ’70s, to the shiny soul pop of the ’80s and the blues revival of the new millennium.
“We always do a mixture of old stuff, but usually about half of my show is songs that I really have to do,” he explained, referring to his many hits over the decades. “We rearrange those to keep them fresh for us, and we try different arrangements and try to reinvent them from time to time.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, 66, began as a teen phenom in the early 1960s, with an outsized soulful tenor voice that channeled Ray Charles into the burgeoning English rock scene. With the Spencer Dais Group, he fronted proto-rock classics like “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.”
As front man for Traffic, he infused jazz and soul into psychedelic English-guitar rock on songs like “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Heaven is in Your Mind” and “Smiling Phases,” and meanwhile teamed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker for rock’s first “supergroup,” Blind Faith, for which he wrote the enduring “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
After Traffic’s 1974 breakup, Winwood took a break, then went solo and re-emerged in the mid-80s, winning Grammys and making tight pop songs like “Higher Love,” and “Roll With It.”
Saturday night, he headlines the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience in the Benedict Music Tent, playing a Hammond organ and guitar, with a backing band that includes saxophone and flute players.
“I like playing jazz festivals because I think I do try and employ elements of jazz in what we do,” he said from his native England in May, between pre-tour rehearsals.
His rehearsal process, he said, consists largely of playing with old songs and finding ways to “mix them up” into new arrangements. Winwood doesn’t kid himself about his audience — he knows fans come out to hear the hits, so he plays them. But he tinkers with how he does so, and features them alongside newer material — like songs from his most recent solo albums, 2003’s “About Time” and 2008’s “Nine Lives” — along with some obscure Traffic songs and Winwood rarities.
If you listen to Winwood’s catalogue from start to finish (his four-disc, 58-song 2010 retrospective, “Revolutions” is a good primer) it takes a fascinating arc that reflects the sounds of the eras in which he’s played, with his distinct high tenor always at the center. You go from the organ-driven R&B of his Spencer Davis songs through the Age of Aquarius sonic textures of Traffic and Blind Faith, into his more heavily produced and synthesizer-backed ’80s hits like “Valerie” and “Back in the High Life Again,” then into the world music and blues-infused solo work he’s done in the past 15 years — it’s quite a ride.
The surface differences and dated aesthetics fall away when you look at the underlying structure of the songs, Winwood said.
“They seem like distinct phases,” he added, “but I sometimes look at the composition of the songs in the ’80s and those Traffic songs and the latest stuff on ‘About Time’ and ‘Nine Lives’ and the common thread running through is this combination of folk, rock, jazz and ethnic music. I’ve kept that all the way through, including those more produced songs of the ’80s.”
He learned to play music from his father, a sax player with whom he jammed on ’30s and ’40s swing and dance music as a kid, before beginning his career at age 14. Hearing Ray Charles in the early ’60s was a revelation for the young Winwood.
“He seemed to combine everything,” Winwood explained. “R&B, jazz, rock — he seemed to have it all going. That definitely had a big influence on me.”
He then found like-minded friends who would turn him on to the new sounds coming out of the flourishing early rock scenes in the U.S. and Europe.
“These enthusiasts would come to me with records and lend them to me and play them for me,” he said. “There was quite a bit of camaraderie among these music enthusiasts in those days.”
Given the length of his career and the span of generations it’s touched, casual fans often don’t make the connection between the kid with the booming voice from Spencer Davis and his mature work.
“Some people don’t realize the same person they were listening to in those songs of the ’80s when they were teenagers is the one they’ve probably heard on songs like ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ and ‘I’m a Man,’” he said. “They probably don’t connect that that was the same person, which is interesting.”
This spring, Winwood was at work on new music. After a string of June solo dates, he hits the road with Tom Petty this summer, before going back to work on the new material when that tour wraps up in October.
He’s unsure whether the sessions will produce a proper album or a string of EPs and tracks, signaling that he’s continuing to change with the times and is adapting to today’s download-friendly and album-averse music business.
“I’d like to release music in an alternative way than the traditional album form,” he said.
Winwood also is excited about the future of music, and encouraged by the explosion of electronic dance music and the new mixtures of instrumentation and samples that DJs are adding to pop music.
“I’m quite interested in EDM,” he said. “Some of that is very interesting. I see a link between that and Latin and Brazilian music. Some of it is very industrial and it’s hard for me to swallow, but there’s a lot of potential there.”
Winwood also keeps an eye on social media to find out how his audiences are reacting to his shows. He’s been encouraged to tinker with his biggest hits due some of what he’s seen on Twitter and Facebook.
“They do like to hear the songs that they recognize,” he said, “but they don’t seem to mind much if it’s a different version. It may be an acoustic version or otherwise rearranged in some way. It doesn’t seem to bother them as long as they hear that song — I think they like that it is reinvented in some way.”