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Bandleader, musician, and seven-time Grammy award-winner Paul Winter has a new album out, Light of the Sun, which was released in November of 2020. The new record features Winter singing and for the first time being the lead soprano sax player throughout the CD.  

Winter, during his early college days toured to 23 countries of Latin America and also performed in a jazz performance at the White House during the Kennedy Administration in 1962.  Thus far he has performed in 52 countries, has released more than 60 records, and still has time to be interviewed by press all over the world. Winter has recently completed “Paul Winter’s 41st Annual Winter Solstice Celebration,” which is a full-length video special, themed Everybody Under the Sun, looking back over the four decades of the event and featuring iconic performances and highlights by the Consort and guest musicians.  In this emailed interview, Winter talks with the Ithaca Times about his new record and his plans for the future.   

Ithaca Times: Do you feel your music helps to heal or reveal?

PW: I can’t make any claims for how music affects anyone. Only listeners can do this. But I can speak about my own experience of music, both as a player and a listener.

Playing my horn puts me back together. If I even just play a few long tones in the morning, I feel renewed. I most often play with eyes closed, and feeling the sounds in this totally aural realm takes me immediately into another zone, one that for me quickly transcends that of the cortical clutter that runs my life most of the time.

If I then play a piece I love, say of Bach, or some melody from my own repertoire, I’m carried into a place of exaltation. My heart is smiling again. And my “gladitude” comes back.

Our bodies love vibration. It’s what is going on in all our quadzillions of cells, all the time. And all of the systems that are constantly interweaving in this miraculous tapestry of our being, crave this motion.

When you are playing an instrument, like a wind or a string, from which the vibrations are resonating through your body, this can awaken your central nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, and maybe even the soul system, wherever that may be.

Playing music supposedly awakens our intelligence. Studies have shown that it improves kids’ abilities to learn (maybe also those of us over 39), and that they do better in math and other subjects. If this is true, then why aren’t we enabling kids to make music every day, instead of subjecting them to endless hours poring over words and other left-brain activities? This makes me wonder if a great part of our whole educational system is not absurd.

I’ve tried meditating, numerous times, over the years, in contemplative traditions for which I have great respect, like Zen. But I never could reconcile spending the vast amount of time that seems to be needed to get to a place I can reach in minutes playing music. Meditators sit for hours aspiring to a zone beyond thoughts. But there’s no vibratory awakening in play (although sometimes chanting is involved). In the sedentary mode, the systems of your body begin to wind down, and the only one that keeps active — the cortical — takes over and “comes to the rescue,” to keep you awake. So it seems to me that trying to quiet your thought processes with your thinker is like taking an alcoholic to a bar to have a drink and talk about his problem.Playing music with others, then, brings a whole additional level of nourishment. Making sounds together can be an experience of communing, which gives you a sense of relatedness to the world. I think we all deeply want that.

And then when there is an audience listening, giving you license to put forth your musical offering, and affirming your expression by their appreciation – this is deeply gratifying. Fulfilling, I would say.

As listeners, we each have our tastes, having to do with melodies or sounds we experienced growing up, or in different stages of our journey, or from memories of relationships, or places we remember, or wherever. And some of us like to hear musical adventures that are new, as jazz listeners often do. It’s a question of what music speaks to you.

There are no absolutes or universals in the realm of esthetics. One man’s magic is another man’s misery. As the old saying goes: “Beauty is in the ear of the behearer.”

IT: Your recent album Light of the Sun was a different undertaking as a solo sax player. How were you able to make a new path with your music?

PW: Since organizing my first band at age 12, in my hometown of Altoona, PA, I have always worn two musical hats: as player and as bandleader. But my love for playing my horn has long been overshadowed by my fascination with organizing ensembles.

With my college jazz sextet, and with the Consort, which has been my forum since 1968, I’ve usually been content to play as a member of the ensemble. The premise of my bands has alwaysbeen that of a musical democracy: everyone’s voice gets heard, but the overall ensemble sound is primary, just like with the big bands I so loved as a kid in the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

For many years, however, I did harbor the dream of creating an entire album featuring my soprano sax. Having turned 80 last year, I figured this was as good a time as any to do it. This is not really a new path for my music, but simply one project that shines a light on me as a player. This is the first of 52 albums in which my horn is featured throughout.

I knew immediately that I wanted the album to be a celebration of light. With the title, “Light of the Sun,” I intend to embrace the many meanings we attribute to light: light as spirit, love, consciousness, human kindness, serenity, heart, exaltation, fire; the light that is integral to beauty; and the smile that reflects the sunshine in our heart.

I immersed myself in the question: what is the music of light?

Music is the common medium that can embody both the spiritual and physical aspects of light. I want to explore how music can transmute the essence of light into spirit-energy, for our wayward species, just as chlorophyll transforms sunlight, through photosynthesis, to create the energy that gives life to all plants.

The musical pieces that awaken my heart are those that have a sublime melodic lyricism, in relation to the chordal progressions. They are pieces which, for me, have a miraculous quality of timelessness. And I have always marveled at this unique characteristic of music: if you are allured to a piece of music, you can listen to it countless times, and somehow the ear doesn’t tire of it; whereas the eye, most often, is always wanting something new.

The recordings in “Light of the Sun” come from my three favorite sonic temples on the planet: the Kiva, of the Miho Museum; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where the Consort and I have been artists-in-residence since 1980; and the Grand Canyon, which has been a place of pilgrimage for me for many years. These are places where I feel my horn realizes its true voice, acoustic spaces where its spirit-song comes alive.

I feel this album, “Light of the Sun,” is my testament as a sax player. However, in saying this, I don’t mean to imply it is my last. Actually, I intend it as my first.

I’ll still always be a bandleader, but maybe I’ll step out a little more.

IT: As a musician, what is the most difficult thing that you are confronted with now?

PW: Mass media, and the dumbing-down of America.

Mass media during recent decades has brought about the dumbing-down of our society. This is the most challenging thing I am facing both as a citizen and a musician. And I see it as the most ominous thing confronting our whole species, and the entirety of civilization.

Mass media seduces people into being gullible spectators, and we then no longer think for ourselves. We abdicate our own intelligence. We no longer listen to our own voices. We are rendered less and less able to use our collective intelligence to solve the huge issues, such as climate change, and all the inequities and imbalances that have led so many people to feel disenfranchised.

Only a severely dumbed-down society of media-sheep could have handed over the reins of their country to a Media-Monster, a pathological power-addict, dedicated to controlling and destroying America for his own personal gratification. Allowing this Monster to commandeer the White House has been the dumbest thing we have done in American history.

His strategy for getting elected, and then tearing down the institutions of our government, and destroying civility in our society, has been: “Make America Hate Again.”

For all these misguided media-sheep to have embraced as savior this “Manchurian Candidate” aberrant hominid, is beyond “shooting yourself in the foot.” It’s pointing the gun right between your eyes.  

In time, if our republic survives, I visualize that most of the media-sheep will arrive at the rude awakening that they have been snookered, by a master con-man. And then this odious name will come to be reviled, and be stricken from all buildings, enterprises and golf courses throughout the land. Think “Hitler Tower” in Berlin. Would that fly? 

We dodged a bullet on November 3, but the Monster, with his cabal of criminal cronies in the Senate, along with its flock of misguided sheep, are still going to be very much with us.

And the “us” includes not just Americans, but the entire human species. For as America goes, so goes the world.

IT: As an activist and one who has worked to save the environment – what are your concerns with President Biden’s new administration regarding the environment and the future of the planet? And what are your concerns?

PW: Joe Biden is a decent man, and I’m optimistic that he will at least consider making the right moves to protect the environment and the planet. But it’s hard to know all the many ways our politicians are bridled, once they get into office.

I put my optimism in kids. I’ve had the great privilege of living with young children these last couple decades, and with them, I see the miracle of life, and how miraculous our species can be.

If we can introduce them to the land, to the world of nature, and keep them away from the media long enough for their true instincts to blossom, then I think our species has a chance.

I’ve long been fascinated with the allure of voices from what I call “the greater symphony of the Earth.” The door to that realm was opened for me the night I went to Dr. Roger Payne’s presentation about whale songs, in New York, in the spring of 1968. The poignant, bluesy, yearning voices of these humpback whales changed my life.   

Roger’s 1970 album, “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which touched the hearts of millions of people around the world, probably did more for the cause of whales than all the books and talks and symposia put together.  

The voices of wolves also became part of my musical family around that time.

Most recently, on my album “Light of the Sun,” I’ve recorded a new piece entitled “The Well-Tempered Wood Thrush” based on the song of a Wood Thrush who returned to the forest near my home five summers in a row, singing the same song, in C major. The four three-note phrases of his song happened to outline the first four chords of the C Major Prelude of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” With the recorded voice of the Wood Thrush, along with the harmonies of Bach and rhythmic energy of Brazil, I aspired to create a piece that would convey the same life-affirming spirit that I hear in every Wood Thrush song.

I imagine the creature voices as a gateway to nature, for us. If we can hear the beauty of their singing, and realize that their voices are treasures of this Earth, just as the treasures of art for which we build museums around the world, then we may be inspired to save the habitats which these animals need to survive.

And in this same way, if we realize the kindred essence in all creatures and cultures, and come to embrace the whole Earth as our home, we will find the ways to conquer climate change. Or we will not survive. No creature, in the history of the billions and billions of experiments that life has put forth, has trashed its own habitat, and survived. The jury is still out on our human experiment. 

IT: Would you like to add anything else about your music for our readers?

PW: I am convinced that our listening faculty is the gateway to the deeper instincts of our human nature. My aspiration is to awaken in listeners a deeper sense of relatedness to, and a living resonance with, the entire community of life, with the Earth, and with the cosmos. Music can take us there, if it has sublime beauty.

I have no illusion that my rarefied music can quell the juggernaut of mass-media culture. But we each must do what we can, and be grateful for those who are willing to listen. My realm is that of the “rare birds”: people whose ears are connected to both their hearts and their heads.

I have long taken heart from the oft-quoted words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

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