April 30, 2008

Winwood Keeps On Running with Nine Lives

In 1965, the Spencer Davis Group issued its first single, “I’m A Man,” which introduced the world to a rhythm and blues wunderkind named Steve Winwood. An innately soulful vocalist and musician – particularly on the Hammond organ – Winwood would, over the next four decades, play an eminent role on a range of seminal albums, including those made with Blind Faith, Traffic, and under his own name.

When he performed with former Blind Faith comrade Eric Clapton this past February at Madison Square Garden, Winwood fared particularly well with his more diverse Traffic material. In playing songs like the blues-heavy “Pearly Queen,” the cryptic “No Face, No Name, No Number,” and the surrealistic “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” he bore out the spectrum of his versatility.

From that eclectic spirit comes his latest solo album, Nine Lives, which finds Winwood drawing on an amalgam of styles and influences. Loose, spiraling rhythms and percussion give much of the music a fusion sound tinged with jazz and Latin subtleties. “We’re All Looking” and “Dirty City” – the latter featuring a boiling Clapton solo – jangle and surge to kinetic, tumultuous grooves. The presence of flute and saxophone, both beautifully played here by Paul Booth, adorn lilting songs like “Other Shore” and “Fly,” imparting an ambient mood that sprawls across the album.

This music’s unfailing and most rewarding element, as one would hope and expect, is Winwood’s singing as well as his work on the Hammond, both of which resound mightily here. His vocal phrasing and fluidity often turn out lyrics as inflections, as on “Raging Sea” and “Secrets,” evoking something ultimately more affecting than the words themselves. When his voice ascends to reach the organ’s sanctified strains on “At Times We Do Forget,” the synergy is, quite simply, exhilarating.

In ways both appreciable and mystifying, Nine Lives encompasses the breadth and scope of Steve Winwood’s musicality. The songs recall the progressive phases of his late-sixties and seventies endeavors, yet they come across as neither dated nor unoriginal. To the contrary, the music sounds challenging and inspired, making for a solid album that will – forty-three years after his first
release – give further credence to Winwood’s longevity.