Early Winter

Count_Me_In

Paul Winter grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a small city in the central West part of the state, but he ended up in Chicago in 1957 to study at Northwestern University. He had been playing jazz since he was 13 and was attracted to Chicago because he thought it would be a good place to continue playing the music he loved. While he was at Northwestern, he met Dick Whitsell, a trumpet player who knew other jazz musicians in the area. He helped Winter get acquainted with the jazz scene in Chicago and the two musicians began playing regularly.

In 1960, they began putting together what would become the Paul Winter Sextet. Their first, audacious move was to drive to Philadelphia to ask Jimmy Heath to write arrangements for them, which he graciously agreed to. By 1962, the sextet had signed to Columbia Records after winning a competition at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival in Washington, DC.  The Paul Winter Sextet recorded 5 LPs in 1962 and 1963, and toured Latin America in 1962 as part of the State Department’s Cultural Exchange Program. Shortly after the group completed that six month tour, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited it to play at the White House.  Songs from that performance, along with a generous helping of tracks the group recorded for Columbia, comprise Count Me In, a two disc anthology.

Winter and Whitsell established the sextet based on their admiration for the Jazztet co-led by Bennie Golson and Art Farmer, as well as the Miles Davis group that had recorded Kind of Blue. By the time the sextet recorded its eponymous first album, the lineup was Winter, Whitsall, Warren Bernhardt on piano, Les Rout on baritone sax, Morris Jennings on drums, and Richard Evans on bass.  The album was never released in the US, and the anthology picks things up with the group’s second LP, Jazz Meets Bosa Nova. Disc one of the anthology takes several tracks from that LP and the one that followed, Jazz Premier: Washington.

Heath’s influence is clear in the ensemble’s close harmony behind the soloists and its balance of control and emotion.  Evans and Jones give the band a relaxed swing, with Jones’s ride cymbal driving things along with subtlety and wit. Whitsell and Rout are very solid players, and Whitsell hits a number of good solos, but seems a little tentative on the early recordings. Winter is a consistently powerful and compelling improviser, full of wit and ideas, quick and nimble on alto. Bernhardt is also an engaging soloist and a sophisticated accompanist. The group’s versatility is evident in its choice of material, from blues (“Them Nasty Hurtin’ Blues”) to the bosa nova songs it picked up on its tour of Latin America.   

The sextet that played the White House in late 1962 had six months touring, with more than 160 gigs under its belt. It’s a tougher, harder hitting ensemble than it was on its first two recordings, and Whitsell in particular had developed into a muscular, consistent soloist without losing the lyrical feel that made his playing on the early sessions enjoyable. Rout is also much more at ease than he was in the studio. Jones and Evans were solid pros already, but Jones hits harder on this recording, and the result is a more swinging sound overall. A comparison of the live version of “Casa Camara” from this performance with the studio recording from earlier in the year shows a more confident band, one much more at ease with Latin rhythms.  Even Winter seems to have improved, bringing a bit more spontaneity to his soloing.

When Winter, Whitsell, and Bernhardt began a tour in late 1962 and into 1963, Chuck Israels took over on bass, Ben Riley was in the drum seat, and Jay Cameron was the baritone player. Most of the tracks on disc two are live, from the band’s college appearances during the tour. The music on these tracks is closer to hard bop than the West Coast feel of the first disc, with Dixon moving things along briskly in a manner reminiscent of Art Blakey.  Cameron is a more fleet baritone player than Rout, less edgy. By the end of his run with this group, Rout was developing into a distinctive player, but Cameron is a facile and energetic soloist. The players as an ensemble are as adept on a ballad like “With Malice Toward None” as they are on the harder numbers, such as “All Members.”

The last four cuts on the set are from Jazz Meets the Folk Song, with Cecil McBee on bass and Freddie Waits on drums. “Lass from the Low Countrie” and “We Shall Overcome” are contemplative, while “Repeat” and “Down by the Greenwood Side” move along,  with the band playing energetically. Winter, Whitsell, and Bernhardt had developed an almost telepathic level of communication between them and their work as a unit has an easy but precise quality. By the time of the band’s late ’62 tour, Bernhardt was a sympathetic, responsive accompanist and a distinctive soloist who combined a sense of romantic lyricism with a strong blues base. He continued to grow during his time with Winter.

The Paul Winter Sextet introduced Winter, Whitsell, Rout, and Bernhardt to the jazz world. Whitsell would leave jazz to become a doctor after recording Jazz Meets the Folk Song . Les Rout got a doctorate in Latin American history and enjoyed a distinguished career in academia. Bernhardt is still active in jazz and is well regarded by peers and by jazz critics.  The other musicians who toured and played with the band were already well established and would continue their careers in music. It’s a tribute to the raw talent of Winter, Whitsell and the others that they were able to attract seasoned musicians to join them, and one of the pleasures of Count Me In is to hear how the core group members developed.

I’m disappointed that Whitsell and Rout didn’t continue to play, and hearing this music makes me wish Winter had continued as a jazz musician. Whitsell in particular is a great loss. By the time the sextet played the White House he was a player of intelligence and passion, with a fine sense of melody and a natural feel for the blues. I’m glad Count Me In introduced me to him, and to a group about which I knew little, but whose music I will return to often.

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