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Listen: Steve Winwood’s new live version of ‘Higher Love’

Traffic, featuring singer-multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood, played the second major rock concert I ever attended in 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I didn’t know it was historic until preparing to interview Winwood before his concert Saturday at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.

The legendary jam band was touring in support of its 1971 album, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” which regularly shows up on lists of the greatest albums of all time. The Santa Monica show was one of the few Traffic concerts ever recorded on film and it was the last Traffic jam of that year.

1972 TRAFFIC: Complete concert footage

Shortly afterwards, Winwood was afflicted with peritonitis and had to stop touring.

Winwood, 69, essentially skipped adolescence as a teen rock child prodigy. He began singing and playing keyboards for the Spencer Davis Group at 14, emerging from the same Birmingham, England, scene that produced the Moody Blues and Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra. He wrote and sang their big hit singles, “Gimme Some Loving” and “I’m A Man.”

From there, he joined Traffic with Dave Mason, formed a super group with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker of Cream called Blind Faith, and reformed Traffic as a vehicle for his compositions and arrangements with drummer Jim Capaldi, including “John Barleycorn Must Die” and “Freedom Rider.” He also did session work on such classic recordings such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” The Who’s “Tommy” and James Brown’s “Gravity.”

Steve Winwood (upper left) is pictured in the late 1960s with some of the musicians he often jammed with including Jimi Hendrix (center), Eric Burdon of the Animals (bottom right) and John Mayall (top right). (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Winwood)

During his convalescence after that intense period from 1963 through 1972, Winwood realized he hadn’t taken time to look back or keep up with recording advances. So, he said in a telephone interview, he “sort of dropped out” to learn how other musicians were working in the studios.

He returned in the 1980s a solo artist whose production work more resembled the pop sensibilities of the time. On Friday, he’s releasing a live album showing how he’s re-invented his music from before that “post-graduate” session work of the ’70s.

But, as noted below, his “undergraduate” session work also would have landed him on the dean’s list.

THE DESERT SUN: You worked on some of my favorite albums as a session musician before you “dropped out.” Your blues albums with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were among my favorites. In those days, were you doing studio work mostly to play with your older heroes?

WINWOOD: In those days, being of that young age and being enthusiastic, we just wanted to play and if there was a chance to play with someone good, whether it was someone great, like Howlin’ Wolf, or just someone local you knew was good, we wanted to do it because that was what we did. We lived and breathed it.

You also played with B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix in that 10-year period. Was it different playing with someone from another generation?

There’s no simple answer because first, when I played on the “London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions,” I actually played in the Chess Studios in Chicago and Wolf wasn’t there! But, that was the exception rather than the rule. I think for these like guys like Muddy Waters and B.B., it was as big of a culture shock for them to suddenly be catapulted into the high lights. In the early ’60s, they had gone from playing in juke joints and pubs in Chicago or Mississippi to playing in cities with 3,000-seat audiences. That must have been a big shock for them. I also played live in the early ’60s with quite a few people. In the early days, because of possible budget arrangements, they didn’t actually bring over bands, many of them. So I was backing people like T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim and John Lee Hooker. That was even more interesting than actually being with them in the studio. In the studio, there was a producer or production team in charge. On the road, it was just these great people and us.

So they were able to exert what they wanted from you more on the road?

Yeah. Without going into specifics, some were more grumpy than others.

Did you have any favorites?

Oh, no. They’re all different. T-Bone was fantastic because he had sort of a bebop jazz (influence). I liked that mix.

Yeah, you’re such a great improviser, why did you stay within the confines of blues-based rock instead of going into jazz – which wasn’t a popular art form, but was something people respected, especially when (John) Coltrane was working.

Well, the Spencer Davis Group, when we started in the early ’60s, our sole purpose was to cover these great songs we were discovering. The general public had never heard this stuff, so we were almost passing on these great things we were hearing and in many ways trying to copy. But, in so doing, at some point we all realized we’re not going to be able to do this the same as those guys did. So we went on to develop our own take on it. But, to get back to your question, when I left the Spencer Davis Group and formed Traffic, I specifically decided to not just cover these blues records but to write stuff and infuse more elements of jazz, folk music, rock, ethnic music and all sorts of weird stuff that we could find to make some sort of concoction out of all of these elements without ever knowing what the concoction would be. We just knew we wanted to use all of the elements instead of being stuck with one.

Is that your philosophy now with the greatest hits material you’re performing live? I mean, what Spencer Davis did with the blues, are you doing with Traffic to find new ways to create these weird concoctions out of your greatest hits?

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Absolutely. That is exactly what I’m doing, and from that day in 1967, I don’t think I’ve changed my thinking on that. I was often asked why, in the ’80s it appeared that I sold out and became more of a pop artist. But I always maintained that that stuff in the ‘80s – ‘Back in the High Life’ and ‘Higher Love’ – if you strip away the ’80s production style, the songs themselves are very similar to what Traffic was doing with elements of folk, Latin, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Celtic melodies, jazz and folk elements. So I’ve been doing that ever since and still am doing it. I’m still juggling with all these elements– to the point which I’m not even sure that the music I make is rock and roll. What do you think?

Well, the definition of rock and roll has changed a lot over the years. I think it’s just good improvisation taking the music in many different directions. It’s usually the journalists who have to come up with labels, but I don’t like to if I can help it.

Yeah.

I was reading how you call your guitarist, Jose Neto, sort of a combination of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page with Brazilian harmonies and rhythms.

Yes. Definitely.

Did you seek him out because he had influences other than what you were used to with Hendrix and Page?

Well, not as such. We met in ’95 and he was playing with (Brazilian jazz drummer and percussionist) Airto Moreira in a band with (Moreira’s wife, jazz singer) Flora Purim called Fourth World. Jim Capaldi’s wife was Brazilian and she had them all to dinner at his house and we had a jam together. That’s when I met him. But, in the early millennium, around 2004, I had this idea that I wanted to put a different sort of band together, which was based on the organ jazz trio of organ, drum and guitar, and then add percussion and horns. It’s something I always wanted to do, and that’s the center on this record (“Windwood, Greatest Hits Live”). Because we have no bass player as such – I’m sort of doing that on the organ – it makes the rhythm guitar pretty crucial because the rhythm guitar takes much of the percussive side of the bass and the organ takes up the tonality of it. So Jose and I have hit it off and he is an integral part of the sound I’ve been making since 2004.

It sounds like he was already a premier guitarist in Brazil.

Yes. I think he was musical director for Harry Belafonte at one point. He’s a great player and a band leader in his own right. He’s very well known in certain circles.

Did he do Harry Belafonte’s “Paradise in Gazankulu”? That was an incredible world album.

I’ll bet he was doing that. We’ll have to go online and look that one up. (Neto did play on that LP).

It also sounds like you were influenced by the organist, Jimmy Smith.

Well, Jimmy Smith came first in that spiral of organ playing in 1967 with his iconic version of “The Sermon,” where he takes a technique that I think has been developed in the American black church and applies it to bebop. I think that influenced nearly every organist that came after him because he created a specific technique. Years went by before I actually understood the technique and it was only when I saw these people play that I suddenly realized, “Oh, that’s how they’re doing it” – which was in the mid-’90s. I got to see Jimmy Smith play in a place called The Jazz Café. Jimmy Smith was always very covert about what his left hand and his foot were doing, and there’s a balcony over the stage, which joined part of the restaurant at this little club. I thought sure they were going to close off this balcony, but they didn’t. So, I sat right above his organ and I could see all of his drawbar settings, what his feet were doing, what his hands were doing, and I actually watched him play “The Sermon.” So, it was more from watching than listening that I learned how these guys were doing it. But, yeah, big influence.

Hendrix worked with Miles Davis a little in his last years. Miles wrote that they were planning to do an album together. When you were doing your sessions with Hendrix, did you have any encounters with Miles?

I never had any encounters with Miles. I went to see him and I loved all of his stuff in the late ’60s –”‘On the Corner” and “In A Silent Way.” Massive influence on me.

You worked with such a diverse group of people in the ’70s, like (reggae greats) Toots and the Maytals, Lou Reed, even George Harrison. Did you still use the stuff you absorbed from playing with those guys?

This has got to be a very simple answer: Yes.

You can’t expand on that a little?

Not really because if you listen, especially to this record, the way we tried to reinvent some of these old songs, we put in elements of Afro-Caribbean music and Brazilian music. To play them live, to not just reproduce what was on the record, we’ve tried to give them another life. To reinvent them. I’ve found all that stuff very valuable. In fact, I went about to apply it on “The Arc of a Diver” record I made in 1981. I played everything and produced that, so that was really what I learned in that decade in the ’70s.

I also read you’re interested in electronic music. Have you done any recordings?

I’ve been doing all sorts of things. I’ve been doing hybrids and playing with stuff. I’ve been doing bits and pieces of it.

It sounds like there’s no bad experiences. They’ve all added up to what you are today. It’s hard to say peritonitis was a good experience, but, if it led you down the road to be able to learn from Toots and those other guys…

Exactly. Eddie Harris was definitely one that stands out for me. Although he’s not very well known, he’s a giant among musicians. His sax playing, he just had his own take on it. A brilliant, brilliant musician.

 

New Traffic jam

What: Traffic, featuring Steve Winwood, in concert

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84-245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio

Tickets: $49-$89

Information: fantasyspringsresort.com or (760) 342-5000

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