Paul Winter,
Common Ground
(A&M Records, 1978)

More than two decades since its original release, Common Ground remains a landmark album which set a high standard for Paul Winter's future recordings. The fact that he has frequently met or exceeded that challenge -- most recently demonstrated by his foray into Irish traditions with Celtic Solstice (Living Music, 1999) -- is testament to Winter's ongoing creativity.

This was Winter's final recording before starting his own label, Living Music, which has released all of his albums and those of various Consort members ever since. While Winter would often focus on more specific themes in the future -- humpback whales and literature in Whales Alive!, Russian folk singing in Earthbeat, the spirit and wildlife of the Rockies in Prayer for the Wild Things, and so on -- Common Ground is a more general celebration of nature and music born of a musicians' commune held at Winter's New England farm one summer in the late 1970s.

It also marks the beginning of a long love affair between Winter and the various sounds of nature and society which inspire his music.

"Ocean Dream" is the most evocative of the bunch, blending Winter's soft vocals with the sweeping, fantastical songs of humpback whales. And don't think Winter doesn't given credit where credit is due; the song, the liner notes indicate, was written by Winter and the whale.

Winter borrowed the melody from a wild timber wolf's howl for "Wolf Eyes." The tune features lead vocals by the wolf, Winter on alto sax and harmonium and various accompanying musicians ... but the main attraction here is at the end, when Winter and Ida, a wolf at the North American Predatory Animal Center in the California Sierras, sang a duet with Winter's sax.

Paul McCandless, on oboe, flitters and flies around the recorded voice of an African fish eagle in "Eagle." "Trio" is a musical conversation among animals, with Winter's sax, McCandless's oboe and David Darling's cello playing the parts of eagle, wolf and whale.

"Ancient Voices" is an exuberant song written by Winter and Paul Berliner, based on a song from the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Winter sings inspirational lyrics in English, Berliner provides a layer of rich African vocals, and the singing is accentuated by a passionate arrangement of percussion and other instruments led by Winter's soprano sax.

Jim Scott takes over the lead vocals for "Common Ground," one of Winter's best-known anthems to nature. The seven singers and nine musicians putting this one together were quite obviously in touch with nature as they recorded this in Winter's Village Barn, "In a circle of friends, in a circle of sound." Then Susan Osborn steps up to the microphone to sing "Lay Down Your Burden," a powerful voice and a powerful lullaby, accompanied by cello, organ, sax and English horn.

There are even a few throw-away tunes here. "Icarus" (a tune resurrected from a 1972 Winter album of that name) is a pleasant collaboration of eleven musicians, but it seems bland compared to rest of the album. The same can be said of "The Promise of a Fisherman," which is notable primarily for Winter's wild sax melody line and the five-person chorus singing a Brazilian hymn to the water.

The album concludes with the soothing group song, "Midnight," with African vocals by Winter, English vocals by Osborn and obligato vocals by Janet Johnson. Based on a traditional Guinean lullaby, it's sure to leave you smiling. The album then fades out with the too-brief "Trilogy," which reunites the trio from "Trio," adds Robert Chappell on organ and lifts over it all the actual voices of humpback whale, timber wolf and African fish eagle. (Winter reveals in his liner notes that all three creatures sing in the key of D-flat ... an amazing coincedence of nature.)

In the 21 years since Common Ground was first released, Winter has grown in his music. He has become more focused in his recording while at the same time exploring an even broader spectrum of musical possibilities. However, those later albums can wait. A newcomer to Winter's world should find this album first. Find it, listen to it, treasure it ... and be kind to the Earth.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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