The Story of a Maverick Ensemble

Intrigued by music I’d heard in Latin America during my Sextet’s 1962 State Dept. Tour, I left the jazz scene in ’64 and began an odyssey of exploring the world’s music which has continued until today. Living in Brazil for a year in the mid-‘60s, I fell in love with cello (through the music of Villa-Lobos); with English horn (having heard the solo piece “The Winter’s Passed,” by Wayne Barlow); with classical guitar, as used in Brazilian folk and popular music; and also with a rich variety of hand percussion; and I wondered if I couldn’t create an ensemble that included these instruments, that could play soulful music that was sometimes soft (everything we played in our jazz sextet had usually been loud – as there were no mics or sound systems in those days). So on my return from Brazil I began envisioning an ensemble that could be a forum for the whole range of musical genres I’d come to love – from Bach to African music – and include as well notable voices from the symphony of nature (as the whale, wolf, and eagle). I sought out players of these instruments, and organized a group for which I borrowed the name “Consort” of Elizabethan times, from the house bands of Shakespearean Theatre, which also blended woodwinds, strings and percussion, and allowed the players to embellish on the written parts.

At first I did arrangements of some of my favorite classical pieces (sax players don’t often get to play Bach), along with original pieces in which there were places for improv solos. The flute player and I had played jazz, but the cellist and English horn player had never played a note that wasn’t written on a page in front of them. I felt we had to find a way to bring them into the free-play experience, but I didn’t want to try to teach them how to play over chord changes (as jazz players do). I wanted to hear music more organic to their traditions, toward the goal of creating pieces which did not sound “written.”

Our gateway to this full “Consort” vision, and to these adventures in sound-play, was a pentatonic scale. A friend had come back from Japan with a Koto, and left it with us to try to do something with it. We were fascinated by its scale: a five-note scale like the minor scale without the 4th or 7th (C – D – E-flat – G – A-flat – C). The two minor seconds gave it an interesting flavor. I convinced the reluctant cellist to try playing freely together with the alto sax, alto flute, and English horn, and the sound and experience were amazing. It opened the door for him to become a brilliant, improvising player.

I want to share in the workshops some of what I’ve learned about creating unique ensembles, and about collective processes for creating music for these groups, during my experiences with the various chapters of the ensemble I founded 48 years ago, the Paul Winter Consort. The Consort since its beginning has had the core instrumentation of cello, English horn/oboe, alto or soprano sax, classical guitar or piano, acoustic bass, and a vast variety of percussion. (And we at times have also embraced flute, Heckelphone, French horn, viola, contrabassoon, sarrusophone, and various ethnic instruments.)

Essentially we were always a “maverick” ensemble, for which there was no genre tradition and no literature. So we had to learn to create our own music (just as did the Beatles). It is from these adventures with my long-time love of unique combinations of instruments and voices, that I draw upon during this morning this weekend.