For nearly four decades, Steve Winwood has remained a primary figure in rock ‘n’ roll, a respected innovator who has helped to create some of the genre’s most celebrated achievements.
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Beginning with his burst into prominence in 1963, Winwood’s celebrated skills as a composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist have developed an impressive catalog of popular music. That extraordinary portfolio of music now grows even larger with the release of his inspired new album About Time.
The eleven songs featured on About Time signal a bold new artistic direction for Winwood. Such a shift should hardly come as a surprise for those who have followed Winwood’s distinguished career. Beginning with The Spencer Davis Group extending through Traffic and Blind Faith to such landmark Steve Winwood solo albums as the Grammy Award-winning Back In The High Life and Roll With It, Winwood has nurtured a restless creative spirit, mining rich musical traditions such as Delta blues, English Folk, R&B, and West Afro/Carribean and merging these diverse influences within his own unmistakable sound.
That process continues with About Time. Winwood set out to craft a fresh, contemporary album that would combine World music and Rock & Roll. To achieve this, Winwood’s first objective was to center the album’s sound around the Hammond B-3 organ. That decision, Winwood explains, provided immediate dividends by opening a host of different creative possibilities. "A couple of years ago I decided that I was going to make a record without a bass player," states Winwood. "That in itself, just making that decision, immediately dictated the sound and flavor of the record. There was then the question of writing songs and incorporating various musical styles that I wanted to use. I was keen to take the style of those early organists like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Groove Holmes, who were brilliant exponents of the style known as ‘kicking the B, and combine that with elements of World Music and Rock.’"
With his musical course for the new album set in place, Winwood recruited guitarist Jose Neto and drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. to bring About Time to life. "I have known Walfredo for ten years, going back to the 1994 Traffic tour. I first met Jose during the 1980’s when he was playing with Fourth World with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim," Winwood explains. "When Wally and Jose first arrived in England to record About Time, we had all played with each other but never together. A couple of tracks on the record-‘Final Hour’ and ‘Sylvia’ - were done in the first few days that we had ever played together."
In addition to forming a new band, Winwood eschewed many of the trappings of modern recording technology and elected to cut About Time live in the studio. "It was a different experience for me. Just putting people in a studio and setting microphones up," says Winwood. "It sounds a bit stupid really because that's what recorded music should be about. But it isn't actually done that way very much these days. It was the first time in 27 years that I recorded tracks without loops or a click. I was keen to pare down the album’s sound to its primary elements and I feel this strategy, coupled with the three musicians interacting in a live environment, has contributed a lot of life and vibrancy to the music on About Time." The trio plays alone on four of the songs. Guest musician Karl Denson plays flute and saxophone on a couple of the tracks and on the remaining 6 tracks, Karl Vanden Bossche plays congas and Richard Bailey who plays timbales.
Winwood began composing new material for About Time two years ago. The majority of these new songs took form on the Hammond B-3 before Winwood began to collaborate with Jose Neto and others to bring these fertile ideas to fruition. "Different Light," About Time’s opening track, is a perfect example of Winwood’s desire to build a new song by working directly across from someone and feeding off each other. "That was an idea that I had on the organ," recalls Winwood. "Jose is a fantastic guitarist but what I find interesting is that what he writes is exactly what he plays on the guitar. I have tried to somehow take some of that style from him and write that way myself."
"Cigano (For The Gypsies)" not only draws upon Neto’s Brazilian heritage but also his admiration for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The breadth of these diverse influences fueled the dramatic interplay between Winwood and Neto throughout the song. "The song itself has a rock beat but the middle section goes into a very specific rhythm from Northern Brazil with the triangle and Brazilian chord changes. Then it goes back into the rock structure and that really intrigued me," explains Winwood.
For Winwood, blending these diverse strands is a central component of his songwriting technique. "Once I have written a song, I begin thinking about how to treat it," he remarks. "It is a lot like cooking really. You can either start from a book or follow the instructions or you can conjure up whatever flavor or spices you want just depending on how you are feeling at that moment."
Such exotic flavoring is resplendent throughout About Time. Perhaps the most compelling example is the Latin tinged "Domingo Morning." "That was something that Jose had written on an acoustic, nylon string guitar," Winwood states. "It combines the best of European and African music and I was very pleased with how this song came together."
A distinctive Latin flavor was also used with great success in Winwood’s dramatic interpretation of the 1972 Timmy Thomas song "Why Can’t We Live Together." "That again came out of our first getting together as a band," details Winwood. "We were talking about records that have organ bass on them. I had also spent the last year or so listening to everything I could that had organ bass on it. Walfredo suggested doing ‘Live Together’ and it seemed to be a natural. We cut that live and it was a very early take."
Winwood’s penchant for recording live in the studio gave birth to the spirited "Phoenix Rising." "I worked on the lyrics for this song with William Topley. So when it came time to record it, we just played the song and ended up mastering one of the early takes," he explains.
Just as About Time reveals an intriguing new chapter in his storied career, Winwood has also chosen to launch his own record company, Wincraft Music. "That decision," Winwood explains, "is rooted in the desire to maintain the highest levels of artistic control and integrity, from the music's creation right through to its presence in retail outlets." To serve this new enterprise, Winwood teamed with Colorado based SCI Fidelity Records, who are administering Wincraft Music, and their partner management firm Madison House.
Central to Winwood’s desire to establish his own label is his view that the relationship between artists and record labels has shifted. "Increasingly albums are now seen as a financial investment made by a record company, as opposed to an artist’s creative vision." Winwood explains. "I’ve got to say that I think a lot more pressure has been brought to bear by most record companies over the last twenty years or so on the artist to make a record that sounds a certain way because they want to market it a certain way. There appears to be a lot people putting their creative oar in, rightly or wrongly, and this has affected music, he continues. "I don’t recall being asked if we could create a particular radio mix in the early days. There exist artists who are brave enough to completely ignore that. I can’t say that I have always been that brave and it is my own loss that I haven’t been. That certainly isn't the case on this record. I think that freedom has had a positive effect on the kind of record we produced with About Time."
To support the launch of About Time and Wincraft Music, Winwood will announce an extensive tour schedule set to begin in April 2003. Winwood is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to present his new band and the vibrant songs that make up About Time. With so much material to draw upon, Winwood plans on making each concert a unique experience. "It is so exciting for me to get out there and play with this band," states Winwood. "I am looking forward to playing more of my repertoire live than ever before: including songs from my past that I’ve rarely played on stage," he states.
Born May 12, 1948 in Handsworth, Birmingham, England, Winwood developed an early interest in music. Encouraged by his parents Lillian and Lawrence, Winwood displayed a surprising facility for both the guitar and piano. Heavily influenced by Ray Charles, Winwood continued his musical development at school, studying classical guitar and piano. Excited by the prospect of blending jazz, folk, blues, and R&B into one cohesive effort, Winwood and his older brother Muff Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group in 1963. While only fifteen years of age, Winwood’s striking vocal prowess, imbued with passionate blue-eyed soul, helped propel the group to the top of the UK charts. Shortly thereafter, the Spencer Davis Group enjoyed international success with two unforgettable singles, "Gimme Some Lovin" and "I’m A Man."
In April 1967, Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group to form Traffic. Winwood’s affinity for the distinctive sound of the Hammond B-3 organ can be traced back to Traffic. The instrument was a critical component of the beloved ensemble Winwood co-founded in 1967 with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. Mr. Fantasy, their landmark debut, launched a steady string of inventive albums and singles that firmly established Traffic as one of the most important and commercially successful groups of their era. In 1969, Winwood followed Traffic with Blind Faith. Hailed as the first ‘supergroup,’ Blind Faith, the group’s sole output, was an international best seller. Signature songs such as "Can’t Find My Way Home" and "Presence Of The Lord" make clear the special chemistry Winwood enjoyed with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech. The following year, Winwood reformed Traffic and of the superb albums that followed; John Barleycorn Must Die, The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, and When the Eagle Flies, each reached the U.S. Top Ten and further expanded the group’s audience.
Beginning with 1977’s Steve Winwood, Winwood has embarked upon an extraordinary solo career and has continued his creative evolution. His first solo effort, and those that would follow, recruited him an entirely new audience, which coupled with his loyal core of Traffic supporters, made him one of the music industry’s top artists once again. Songs such as "Valerie," "Freedom Overspill," "Roll With It," and "Higher Love," rank among Winwood’s finest achievements. The album Back In The High Life was itself a magnificent accomplishment. The album became his biggest selling effort to date, earning five Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards—Best Male Vocal and the coveted Record Of The Year.
Throughout Winwood’s career, his durability and remarkable capacity to surprise has never diminished. While he is rightfully acknowledged for his many achievements, Winwood forges ahead undaunted, as evidenced by About Time, to create and perform new and exciting material. He remains, more than thirty years after his recorded debut, one of the most important and influential artists in all of popular music.
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