Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Paul Winter Sextet: Count Me In

Living Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Count Me In

Unless you’ve been a jazz fan for half a century or so, the Paul Winter Sextet likely won’t ring a bell in your memory box. That’s a shame, for several reasons: This was the first jazz group invited — by Jackie Kennedy, no less — to perform a concert at the White House; it was the first jazz combo to be sent by the State Department on a six-month tour of 26 Latin American countries; and it was one of the early bands that initiated the bossa nova craze here in the States. 

All that said, Winter’s sextet never made it over the jazz radar: arriving, performing and disbanding during a period of fewer than three years.

Winter was born during the big band era, and his early influences included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. Winter’s primary instrument was the alto sax. He met Dick Whitsell, who played trumpet, while attending Northwestern University. Whitsell, who was three years older, became Winter’s mentor; they became the nexus of the sextet that followed. 

Both had chosen Northwestern because of its proximity to Chicago, which — at the time — was one of the keystone jazz cities. They formed a band and played fraternity and sorority dances held throughout the Chicago area. Winter and Whitsell wanted a “little” big band, so the sextet was voiced to include three horns — alto sax, trumpet and baritone sax — and a standard rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. The baritone sax was a must, as far as Winter was concerned; he loved the rich, “bottom” sound that instrument gave the band.

Another point of interest: This college group utilized a female vocalist for a short time, and her name was Ann-Margret Olsson. You’ll recall that she later dropped her last name and went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood.

The sextet was selected carefully, although most members weren’t well known at the time. Pianist Warren Bernhardt, a member of the Winter group during its entire life, went on to work with luminaries such as Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan and Kenny Burell. Baritone saxman Les Rout became a famed teacher and writer; bassist Richard Evans remains active in the R&B and fusion genres. Drummer Harold Jones also still plays, and has worked with dozens of name artists. 

As a group, this sextet won the 1962 Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, was signed by Columbia Records and released several albums, and made the State Department Tour and performed at the White House Concert.

Although active during the period when bebop was the rage, the group didn’t play that genre. Some describe the style as New Age, but however you tag it, these guys swung like crazy. 

This package features two CDs with a total of 42 tracks, including 14 that are previously unreleased. Not even a single jazz standard is included; everything was written by group members, or by composers and arrangers who were their biggest fans. The melodic lines are relatively complex and tightly orchestrated, and the solo work is brilliant. 

This release is a 50th anniversary anthology of this marvelous sextet. It’s an absolute must-have collection for jazz fans who lived during that period, and for younger listeners who want to learn more about the music that existed in America at that time.

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