Monday, October 27, 2008

Music Monday--Steve Winwood, "Night Train"

I like to think that Steve Winwood’s 1980 album, Arc of a Diver, was the first one I ever bought. That isn’t exactly true, but it was the first one I purchased according to my taste; I wasn’t following the lead of friends or relatives when I got it. The title track and “While You See a Chance” were the singles released from it, and they didn’t sound like any other music on the pop airwaves back then. Complexly structured and elaborately arranged, they were the work of a musician who took care to make them unique, even from each other, and he did so by following his own creative impulses and judgment. In short, Steve Winwood was the first musician I recognized as an artist.

I was also in awe of his enormous ability. Dubbed the “Mod Mozart” after he began recording in the mid-Sixties (he was all of 17), there was no musical skill he couldn’t master, and not one of his peers from the British Invasion could match the range of his talent. His church-bell singing voice was (and is) remarkably compelling, and his instrumental chops can hold their own with the best rock keyboardists and guitarists of the last forty years. When putting together Arc of a Diver, he decided to make the most of his abilities and turn out a completely solo effort. He wrote and arranged all the music, played all the instruments, and handled all production and engineering duties. He even recorded it in a studio he built on the grounds of his home in England.

The only thing he left to others was the lyrics. The best-known of his writing collaborators is probably Will Jennings, who also wrote the lyrics to “Up Where We Belong” for An Officer and a Gentleman and “My Heart Will Go On” for Titanic. When one compares Jennings’ movie work to the sophistication of the lyrics for “While You See a Chance,” “Slowdown Sundown,” and “Night Train,” one finds it’s like night and day. Winwood encouraged his lyricists to write at their own level, and they gave him the best work of their careers.

Winwood certainly did estimable work before Arc of a Diver, during his stints in the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and his own band, Traffic. And he's certainly had quite an accomplished career after it, with two number-one singles and albums in the mid-to-late Eighties and a continued flow of albums and concerts to this day. But Arc of a Diver will always be his peak for me, and "Night Train," my favorite track from it, is the featured recording for this week's Music Monday.

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