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Paul Winter has come a long way since he started out exploring the mysteries ands treasures of jazz over four decades ago. The 68-year-old American saxophonist has toured the world, produced a plethora of albums and garnered an armful or two of awards, including no less than five Grammies.
Today, Winter is best known for his singularly ecological approach to his craft. Together with his Consort band and other artists he has spent much of the last 30 years incorporating the bewitching sounds of whales, wolves and all manner of feathered friends in his music, in what he calls "the greater symphony of the Earth".
Between May 17 and 19 Winter will perform his latest composition, "Flyways," at Nahal Zohar by the Dead Sea. "Flyways" is inspired by the migratory path of birds as they fly up and down the Great Rift Valley and beyond. The Flyways ensemble includes 28 players from various countries along the birds' seasonal flight path.
Considering his experiential and inspirational links with Israel, it is only fitting that Winter will premier the new work in this part of the world. "I played a concert in the Negev in 1994 for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel," he says. "My first epiphanic experience with migrating birds was flying in a motorized glider from Galilee Airport with a migrating stork, all the way down across Jerusalem to the Negev. That was an unforgettable experience, and it was that which really catalyzed the vision for this [Flyways] project."
In fact, Winter's fascination with sounds outside the strict confines of the western world began in the early Sixties when, just one year after being discovered at Northwestern University in Chicago, he landed a record deal with Columbia Records. The next year he was dispatched by the US State Department on a six month tour of 23 Latin American countries. "That introduced me to sounds and rhythms beyond the realms of what I had known until then," Winter recalls. "It was the start of a journey I have been on ever since."
His jazz sextet was one of the first groups to assimilate the syncopations of the Brazilian bossa nova musical genre. Later, at the invitation of Jacqueline Kennedy, it became the first jazz band to officially perform at the White House - an auspicious start to what has become a sparkling cultural border crossing odyssey.
Winter describes "Flyways" as "a tapestry of themes inspired by vocalizations of the birds and or the movement of the flying birds, and by the traditional music of the cultures over which they fly." The ensemble duly includes musicians all the way from Russia to Mozambique. Sounds like something of an airborne global village devoid of cultural and political borders.
"The birds offer us a sense of inclusiveness of which everyone is a part, no matter what country they are from. That gave rise to the motto which came from my friend the ornithologist Yossi Leshem: 'migrating birds know no borders.' The same goes for music. These are the great universals - nature and music - and this is a great opportunity to weave them together."
Winter met Leshem, who runs an ornithological research center near Latrun, in 1991 after a concert at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. "Yossi came up to me after the show and told me about his work with birds," the saxophonist recalls. "I was fascinated by what he told me and we have been working together, on bird related projects, all these years."
Of course, playing music outdoors can lead to situations in which the artist spontaneously feeds off the natural sounds and rhythms around him. "Yes, that does happen," says Winter. "For me, the great heritage of jazz is this ability to continually adapt and adjust, and welcome the experiences and people you encounter. You can meet people with whom you are unable to communicate in a verbal language but you can find a way, through your music, to invite them in. That's what I enjoyed so much on that trip to Latin America. When you do that you feel at one with the universe. A few years later I heard the humpback whales and that opened the door to a much broader family with whom we cane commune."
Winter has some words of encouragement for those of us who may not be blessed with such rich musical talent, but are also looking to communicate on a different, non-verbal level. "It's no different than returning a smile from someone on the street that you don't know. It's just being about open."
Winter's concerts will form the centerpiece of a whole agenda of environmentally oriented activities taking place at the Nahal Zohar site over three days. Lectures, panel discussions, wildlife trips, exhibitions and films are among the scheduled events. The concerts will start at 9 p.m. on May 17, 6 p.m. on May 18 and at 7 p.m. on May 19, with activities taking place continuously on the last two days.