STEVE WINWOOD - The Legend Returns with "Greatest Hits Live"

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“Maybe you should wait until after the interview,” legendary singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood jokes with me on Skype, after hearing me say what an honor it is to speak with him. Truth be told, I’ve been listening to Winwood since my early teens, and his 1986 Back in the High Life tour stop in New Jersey (with opening act Level 42) still ranks as one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen. So the interview's significance wasn't lost on me. 

After selling over 50 million albums in his nearly sixty years in the limelight - both as a solo artist and with acts like the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith, Winwood isn't just performing his greatest hits, he's reinventing them.And on his new albumGreatest Hits Live, listeners get a front row seat to this iconic performer's live prowess, with a crack band and a jazz musician's sense of daring. 

While still on-tour promoting his first new album in almost a decade, Winwood made time to talk to Keyboard about the project and why the Hammond organ still takes him back to his musical roots.

Your new double album Greatest Hits Live hit stores last month. After five decades plus, is this your first live album as a solo artist?

Yeah, I think it is. Over the years, I’ve had some great bands and played with some great people. Also, because I do have to play certain songs and certain pieces every time I play - you know, I can’t really get away with not playing “I’m a Man” or “Gimme Some Lovin’” or “Dear Mr. Fantasy” or “Higher Love.” So, we decided at some point that we would try and reinvent some of these songs. Ever since I left the Spencer Davis Group and started with Traffic, I always made a conscious effort to try to weave into the music elements of jazz, folk music, Celtic melodies and ethnic music elements together with elements of blues or R&B, or blue-eyed soul or whatever you’d like to call it. So, I felt that it would be nice to commit it to an album the way we were doing some of these songs and giving them a different twist. I thought it would be a nice thing to put on an album.

It’s amazing to hear so many of these familiar songs played in such an unexpected way. You sound like you’re getting a kick out of giving them a shot of adrenaline.

Exactly. That’s the idea. We do also reinvent them as well at times. Like, “We’ve done that in that style. Let’s think of another way of doing it.” And it sort of keeps it fresh for the musicians and for me. But I think it also brings something else out of the song as well. It’s quite selfishly, in a large part, for our own enjoyment. But having said that, I think that’s what audiences pick up on.

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In the press materials for the new album you said, “I’ve recorded every show for many years.” That’s almost a jazz-like sensibility - recording your shows to hear what works and to try and improve what doesn’t. It’s a great lesson for musicians who are coming up. What was the impetus to do that?

Exactly that. Of course, this is since the technology has allowed that. Years ago, if you recorded a live show you had to have a truck outside with endless cables snaking all the way out. Now we just do it on a laptop. So, the technology makes it much easier to do. It enables us to sort of fine-tune and tweak things and say, “Well, that perhaps isn’t working like it could. Let’s work on that.” Playing live is not an exact science as much as making a studio record, which is, I would say an exact science. Playing live is not because you’re all the time dealing with different acoustics, different sounds, different sound systems, different audiences - which can give you different sort of feedback, and things are changing all the time. It’s a sort of continuous learning curve, for me anyway.

The album opens with a fresh take on your song “I’m a Man,” which many people know from your tenure with the Spencer Davis Group. I was struck not only by how funky this version is, but how you still seem to have such a deep relationship with the Hammond organ. It sounds like an extension of you. If I only heard the band playing instrumentally on that track without your vocals, I might think it was Dr. Lonnie Smith or the Meters. It’s boogaloo, it’s badass, and it’s as funky as any jazz organ trio or quartet out there.

From around 2003-2004, I put a band together that I’d always wanted to put together, which is based on an organ jazz trio—organ, guitar, and drums. Then we added percussion and a horn player. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it does take the music into a particular place. I’ve always been very interested in the style of organ playing that Jimmy Smith created in 1957 with The Sermon. In fact, I think most organ players after him always looked at that as a yardstick by which they then created their own stuff. Of course, it’s a slightly dying art I think - that method of playing, a Hammond organ. And a lot of the greats are no longer with us. There are a few. You mentioned Dr. Lonnie of course, and Joey DeFrancesco and there are some other great people.

Larry Goldings also comes to mind.

Larry Goldings, of course. These guys are much more “straight ahead” jazz. So, I’m trying to infuse it a little bit with some elements of folk music, ethnic music, Latin, Brazilian, and rock. It then means that the bass lines are no longer walking bass lines. They’re actually all different kinds of bass lines, which is a challenge. And of course, one challenge is for the guitar player in the jazz organ trio, because the guitarist has to make up for perhaps the shortcomings of the organ bass, which obviously is not as deft as either an upright bass or bass guitar. I think it’s important that the guitar is reinforcing rhythmically what the bass is doing on the organ. It’s quite specific, and I’ve been very lucky that ever since I formed this group I’ve worked with Jose Neto, who is fantastic. Although he grew up in Brazil, he was also infusing his love of Brazilian music with sort of Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Clapton and other people. So, for me it’s a great mix.

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Another track on the new record is “Rainmaker,” which many fans remember from your work with Traffic. There’s a great video of that from the PBS show Soundstage. Your intro on the organ sounds like something out of a Bach fugue. Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers calls that kind of playing “mock Bach.” Were you introduced to organ playing in church as a kid, and is that where that kind of two-handed playing comes from?

Very good question. I did in fact discover the music of the church, but I didn’t really get the chance to then instantly apply it to the organ. But yes, I went to a very high Anglican church and was and I’m still influenced by that music. In fact, I still do some work with an Anglican church, but I’m only really interested in ancient church music. Contemporary church music doesn’t always “do it” for me. But yes, I did grow up with that music being— and I suppose there was a subconscious root that the music took and it stayed with me. I didn’t at that time say, “I want to take a lot of the movements and the organ improvisations and mix them with jazz.” But I think that over the years they stayed with me and during the time of working on the organ and trying to introduce other elements to the music, I have certainly called on the music I learned when I was 9 or 10. We’re talking about 1957, which ironically is the time Jimmy Smith came out with The Sermon. But it was some years later until I heard that.

I remember Billy Joel saying years ago that he would have been happy just being an organ player in the back of a rock and roll band. Seeing you in different circumstances with the organ - for instance when you were playing for George Harrison’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction alongside Prince, makes me think that at certain times you may have felt the same way. You play the instrument in those situations to lift the band up. I think that’s an art form that people often forget about.

Absolutely. The art of accompaniment is huge. I suppose I had a slightly different route into rock music, if in fact it is rock music that I play. I’m never quite sure of that. But I had a slightly different route because I started off playing ‘30s and ‘40s dance music and American Songbook classics with my father, who played saxophone in a dance band. I had to learn all of those things. Then I was introduced to various kinds of jazz from Dixieland through to Horace Silver to Thelonious Monk. And then of course along came Ray Charles, who again changed everything for me. I came into music from that direction, so it meant that I was always very comfortable playing, and I was often having to comp behind horns that were playing solos and learning how to do that properly. As you say, it is an art in itself and I think it’s very important, and sometimes overlooked.

There’s a great version of “While You See a Chance” on your new album, albeit with guitar playing your iconic synth solo. Keyboardist and programmer Mike McKnight, who’s now on the road with Roger Waters, wrote in and asked, “What’s the synth he used for ‘While You See a Chance’? I saw him playing a Yamaha DX7 years ago but it sounds like a Minimoog.”

It was a Minimoog, and I had a filter pedal as well. It was one of the early Minimoogs that went out of tune very easily. Moog used to make a filter pedal, which was very useful. It gave it some sort of expression, almost like an expression pedal on an organ. Later, I used a sort of Moog sound on the DX7.

Are there any recent keyboards or technological innovations that inspire your creative process today, or do songs still mostly start for you on guitar, piano, or organ?

I have messed around a little bit with different synths that have synthesized Rhodes sounds. Whilst I love the sound of the Rhodes, I find it, unless it’s set up every day perfectly, it has different velocities on different notes and I find it quite troublesome to play the Rhodes. But I do love the sound. So, I’ve been looking for some synthesized versions of it. Yamaha do quite a good version of a stereo Rhodes. They do phased ones and all of that stuff. I’ve also been messing around with Nord stuff a little bit. But of course, at the moment it’s still organ that is my main instrument. Once you play the organ, you can’t really get off it because you’re creating the sort of bass. You’re creating everything. You can’t say, “Well, I’m not going to play organ for this song, I’m going to play that,” because then there’s no bass, unless someone else comes over and does it. So, organ has taken up a lot of my time.

For a long time on quite a few of the Traffic things that I did in the ‘60s, I used organ bass, but I could never quite figure out how people like Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Lonnie did what they were doing. In fact, it was only when I went and saw them in the 1990s it just clicked. I thought, “That’s exactly what they’re doing. Of course.” There’s quite an amount of it which is done with the left hand.

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And they “kick” the pedals, right?

You kick the pedals, but then you’ve got to be able to go down with the pedals with your left hand to actually walk the notes. You have to be quite familiar with the pedals. You can’t just kick them and then play on the manual. But it was only when I actually saw them do it that I realized exactly what they were doing. It just made a lot of sense.

Listening to your album Back in the High Life for the first time in a long time catapulted me back to a time when we had a collective sense of patience. Take the intro to your song “The Finer Things,” which builds like a sunrise. There’s a full 47 seconds of instrumental flourishes before the vocal comes in. If a modern artist tried that today, listeners would probably already be on to twelve other things! Do you miss those times?

Yeah. There was a time - I think it would have been 1971 or 1972, when Traffic had sort of gone into another phase and we were making these long drawn-out instrumental jazzy tracks like “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” purely for our own enjoyment, without any nod towards commerciality or caring whether anybody was even listening. Then interestingly enough, American radio switched from AM to FM, and AM became Top 40 and FM became underground radio. And what did they want to play? Well, these long drawn-out improvised tracks, just exactly the thing that we were unknowingly doing! So, we slotted right in there. And in fact, I’m still living off of that legacy now, especially in America. Because people remember those tracks and they have a meaning to them.

You were jam band before the jam band!

Well, that is true. In fact, I did get an award from the Jammies. I’ve got a Jammy. And then oddly, in fact, something slightly strange happened. It would have been about seven or eight years ago. I think the jam bands thought that perhaps we were one of the founding members of the genre and they very kindly recognized me as such. I do remember there was a while after that when the demographic to my shows seemed to change a bit. I was getting people my age who would have been in their early to mid ‘60s, and then I was getting 25 and 30 year olds who wanted to stand-up. And then the ’60-somethings would want to sit down. For a while there were scuffles breaking out, which hadn’t happened to me since I used to play in Scotland in 1960. So that was an interesting mix of demographics.

Back in 1986 you told the New York Times, “Basically the music doesn’t change, the presentation of it changes. The way that it’s marketed changes, and it’s probably a little better technically done, but it always returns to basically what it is, simple rock and roll or R&B. It’s like the eternal combustion engine, which is still the same that it was. It’s just refined and a lot better.” Do you still feel that way?

Very much so. In fact, people often comment that perhaps I had a period in the ‘80s when I flirted much more with pop music. But I always maintain that if you listen to those songs on Back in the High Life, I’m still trying to do with that music what I was doing with early Traffic stuff and what I’m trying to do now, which is combine elements of jazz with folk with rock with R&B with ethnic music. And if you listen to those songs in the mid-‘80s, I like to think that many of them still contain the same element and it’s actually the veneer of the production that makes it sound a certain way and makes people think it’s more a piece of pop music. Also, there was the strong influence of MTV. Perhaps I got persuaded to do one or two videos that maybe I shouldn’t have done. But we were being convinced that there was no way you could have a successful record in the mid-‘80s unless you made a video.

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Kim Bullard who plays keyboards with Elton John wrote in with two questions. One, “When was the first time he realized that he could sing like that?” And two, “How freaking crazy was Ginger Baker?”

With regard to Ginger Baker, I would just suggest everybody watches his documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. I will say no more on that. With regard to singing, I was in my brother’s jazz band and we were playing different sorts of stuff. I was starting to listen to Ray Charles, and I think my voice was just about breaking. At the time it sort of broke, I was trying to self-groom it into sounding like Ray Charles. Obviously later on, like a lot of my contemporaries then, we were just trying to do covers of great records that we’d heard coming out of America - Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and all sorts of weird, wonderful obscure records. There was a sort of camaraderie going on amongst avid collectors passing this stuff around, which we would listen to and try to cover exactly as we heard them. I and probably some of my contemporaries soon realized that we were never going to get it quite as good as we were hearing it. And by doing so, I guess we were creating something else. As time went on with me, I then tried to introduce other things as well to infuse those early influences with other forms of music.

A reader wrote in and said, “‘Arc of a Diver’ is on this record, but it’s not something you’re known to play all that much at your shows. Is that intentional?”

He’s obviously quite an enthusiast! Part of the reason is because of the lineup of the band I’ve got at the moment. As I said, it’s a sort of organ jazz trio with the addition of horn and percussion. “While You See a Chance” has about four keyboards on it. We’ve only really got two at the most and I’m trying to do bass, and there’s not really any guitar on it. We have done versions of it with this lineup and we’re actually looking at a way of possibly reinventing that song and maybe putting a different twist on it.

After a lifetime of success and hits, do you see yourself writing another record of original material?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’m working on some ideas at the moment. I’m quite interested in what is loosely termed “dance” music because I think there are some very interesting things going on with that at the moment.

For instance?

I saw Jamie Lidell a couple of weeks ago. He’s actually now got a band and he doesn’t use any of the electronic loops and things that he was doing. But I think a lot of DJ producers are doing some fantastic things, and I think there’s a way to actually incorporate that into live playing. So, I’m working on ways to do that. I think that DJ producers are in many ways at the forefront of a lot of modern compositions. There are endless amounts of genres and sub-genres within what is loosely termed “EDM” in America. And I think, to tell you the truth, young people deliberately do that so us older people can’t freely understand it!

You often perform with your daughter Lilly who is a singer herself. Does she introduce you to new music?

Yes, she does. She’s quite interested in Americana, taking a lot of that early bluegrass and country stuff and infusing that with sort of deeper rock beats. So that’s her interest. But my son, on the other hand, is a DJ and producer and he’s educating me. So finally, our children get to educate their parents!

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