Arc of an Organ Player: Steve Winwood rediscovers the Hammond B-3
ASPEN One of the bigger challenges for Steve Winwood is figuring out how to cram 40-plus years of music-making into the confines of a live set. A fair number of Winwood’s contemporaries have a surplus of past hits, as well as new musical interests that might not be as well-known to fans. But few match Winwood for the number and variety of career stages he has had – from being a hit-making teenager in the Spencer Davis Group and fronting the classic rock group Traffic, to his stint in the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith to his pop star ’80s years.”I like to fit in the essentials. Things like ‘Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,’ ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy,’ ‘Gimme Some Lovin.’ People expect to hear them,” said Winwood, who performs Saturday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park. “But there’s a certain scope to the show. It’s hard to cover everything.”That scope emphatically includes Winwood’s latest output. At his last local appearance, Jazz Aspen’s 1999 Labor Day Festival, Winwood memorably introduced a new song. The tune had the multi-instrumentalist perched at the Hammond B-3 organ – a signature instrument from his early days playing blues and R&B on the Birmingham club scene while still a kid – and experimenting with South American rhythms. Four years later, Winwood surfaced with his first album since 1997, the splendid “About Time,” a thorough exploration of the distinctive B-3 sound and South American beats and textures.Winwood isn’t through with this latest artistic phase. A new album, nearly completed and expected to be released by the end of the year, is essentially a continuation of “About Time.” There are differences between the two recordings: On “About Time,” Winwood left the guitar playing to Brazilian-born Jose Piresde Almeida Neto, making it the first album of Winwood’s on which he plays no guitar. Winwood – who played all of the instruments on his ’80s solo albums “Arc of a Diver” and “Talking Back to the Night” – added some guitar to the as-yet untitled new CD. In addition, where the songs on “About Time” were conceived by Winwood beforehand, the latest batch of tunes come out of ideas the band has been playing together.
Otherwise, he is dipping into the same waters that produced the last album. The new CD was recorded largely live – not in front of an audience, but with the musicians, including Neto again, playing together in the studio, rather than layering the tracks.The most satisfying aspect of the current music has been the emphasis on the organ. Neither “About Time” nor the new album features bass guitar; instead, Winwood plays bass parts on the organ. And “About Time,” which was released on the Colorado-based label SCI Fidelity, features plenty of juicy organ fills that will remind listeners of Winwood’s time in the Spencer Davis Group.”I’ve always been fascinated over the years with the Hammond organ,” said the good-natured Englishman, speaking from London. “I’ve learned a little bit in later years from watching other organists about playing bass on the organ. That has a particular sound, and that sound combined with world music – that’s not the usual thing. Because in Africa, Brazil, they don’t have Hammond organs.”To me, that was an interesting experiment, and it seems to be working.”Winwood’s other strengths – as a singer, songwriter and even star of music videos – are powerful enough that he has been a hit even outside his usual realms. In the ’80s, he had a series of spectacularly successful albums – “Back in the High Life” and “Roll With It” – that leaned closer to formatted pop-rock than the more expansive work he had been known for. The run more or less ended with 1997’s flat “Junction Seven.” When he re-emerged, it was with a desire to return to earlier methods.”With ‘About Time,’ I’ve gone back; it’s a closer relation to what I was doing with Traffic,” said the 59-year-old Winwood. “I wanted to do a similar thing – combine these elements of folk, world music, rock and jazz.”
The stages of Steve Winwood’s career: The Spencer Davis Group (mid-’60s): A 15-year-old Winwood co-writes the hits “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man.” Traffic (1967-73): With Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason, Winwood explores experimental song forms. Hits include “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Empty Pages.” Reunited for one 1994 album. Blind Faith (1969): An early supergroup with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, recorded one self-titled album, which included Winwood’s classic, “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Solo (1971-present): Highlights include 1980’s “Arc of a Diver,” 1988’s “Roll With It” (a No. 1 hit); and 2003’s “About Time.” Hit songs include “While You See a Chance,” “Valerie,” “Back in the High Life” and “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?”Steve Winwood, with Angelique Kidjo opening at 6:30 p.m., performs Saturday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival Rio Grande Park.Also this weekend at the June Festival: Friday: Earth, Wind & Fire, with NOMO opening at 6:30 p.m.; Sunday: The Black Crowes, with Marcus Miller opening at 6:30 p.m.; and a free gospel concert by Marva Wright, playing a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, at noon.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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