Paul Winter & Friends,
Celtic Solstice
(Earth Music, 1999)

Paul Winter, who has spent his musical career expanding the definitions of folk, new age and jazz while, at the same time, exploring the boundaries of natural and cultural music, has made a bold foray into the Celtic realm with his new album, Celtic Solstice.

Bringing together an outstanding group of Irish and American musicians to improvise and record in the world's largest gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Winter has crafted a stunning album which blends Celtic themes and styles with Winter's own unique mix of worldbeat, folk and improvisational jazz.

The first track, "Triumph," introduces a trio of musicians who could easily have dominated the album. Winter, of course, swoops and soars on his trademark soprano saxophone. Long-time collaborator Paul Halley joins him on the pipe organ, and I can safely say that there is no person and no instrument better suited to complement Winter's style. And Davy Spillane, the master of the uilleann pipes (recently heard just about everywhere, it seems, from the Rob Roy soundtrack to the Riverdance stage), adds a layer of evocative sound that fits with Winter's and Halley's playing as if they'd been playing together for years. "Triumph" is the product of the trio's first improvisation session, scattered throughout the resonant space of the cathedral.

The trio also fits together nicely for the Spillane/Halley composition, "Dawnwalker," as well as "Dawnwalker Reprise," which concludes the album. However, those are the only tracks which feature just the three musicians. Spillane goes it alone for "Hollow Hills," a brief, melancholy piece for low whistle, and that is it for his contribution to Celtic Solstice. I might be disappointed if the rest of the music and the musicians who created it weren't so good at what they do.

Karan Casey, lead singer of the Irish band Solas, adds her lovely voice to the sax and organ for the traditional song "Golden Apples of the Sun" (words by W.B. Yeats) and the Gaelic tune "Sweet Comeraghs." Like Spillane, Casey merges with the potent Winter/Halley duo without a wrinkle. A lengthy reprise of "Golden Apples of the Sun" is nice enough for Casey's singing alone, but it's Halley who stars in this one. His regal, baroque-influenced performance on the pipe organ has a grandeur that reaches beyond the mere boundaries of a cathedral. It is, in a word, inspirational.

There are also some group efforts, such as "O'Farrell's Welcome to Limerick." Besides Winter and Halley, the graceful, gliding slip jig features Jerry O'Sullivan on the uilleann pipes, Joannie Madden on whistle, Carol Thompson on Celtic harp, Zan McLeod on guitar, Bakithi Kumalo on bass, Austin McGrath on bodhran and Jamey Haddad on various percussion.

"My Fair and Faithful Love/Blarney Pilgrim" is even better, first coupling Winter's sax with Madden's whistle, then gradually bringing in the rest of the consort -- in this case, Halley, O'Sullivan, Thompson, McLeod, Kumalo, McGrath and Haddad mentioned previously, plus outstanding fiddler Eileen Ivers. While the first piece is an ensemble number, "Blarney Pilgrim" is Madden's opportunity to shine just a little bit brighter than the group around her.

Thompson shares a lovely duet with Winter on "The Minstrel's Adieu," a Welsh harp piece featuring, fittingly enough, Thompson's Welsh triple harp. She returns to the Celtic harp and rejoins the larger group for a Phil Cunningham tune, "Farewell to Govan."

Probably my favorite track on the album is another ensemble set piece, "After the Fleadh/Running Through the Woods with Keetu," which spotlights in particular the excellent playing of O'Sullivan on the pipes and Ivers on jazzy fiddle, overlaying some exceptional percussion by Haddad and a standout bit featuring Madden's whistle in the middle. On this track, Winter, Halley, McLeod and Kumalo hang in the background, supplementing the leads neatly without ever being obtrusive.

Winter said in a recent interview that he hopes to delve further into the Irish culture and Celtic music styles. With this for a first step, I look forward to seeing where his journey takes him next.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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