What happens to the boy wonders of music once they're a bit older? Most of them burn out or fade away, it's true, but the strongest presevere and go on to make some of their best music as adults: Stevie Wonder, Peter Frampton and now Steve Winwood, who has emerged from three years of seclusion in the English countryside with a lovely and lyrical solo album.
"Steve was just 14 when I first saw him in a club in Birmingham," says Spencer Davis, who fronted the group for which Winwood wrote and sang his first hits. "Gimme Some Lovin"' and "I'm a Man," and who remains one of Winwood's close friends.
That was in 1963, and he already had it all. He had an amazingly soulfulvoice, a lot of energy and could play blues and mainstream jazz like no one I'd ever seen."
Fourteen years later,Winwood still has it all - save the youthful intensity, "Steve Winwood" (Island ILPS 9494) is a low-key but funky album, full of reflective, melodic numbers that signal Winwood's maturity as an artist. Scored at his country home in Oxfordshire but recorded in London, Winwood's first solo album has the buoyant, guardedly optimistic tone that could come only from a veteran of the rock 'n' roll wars.
The last time Winwood set out to make a solo album was in 1970, after the breakup of his "supergroup" collaboration with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith. The result then was the reunion of Traffic, the on-again, off-again ensemble Winwood founded at 18 and dissolved seven years later, after a disastrous U.S. tour in which one of the members of the group, says Davis, "wasn't even in condition to perform half the time."
Traffic fans will be happy to note the presence of Jim Capaldi, Winwood's favourite writing partner in that group, and African percussionist Rebop Kwaaku Baah, but "Steve Winwood" is not a Traffic album in a slightly different guise. Winwood's music continues to reflect an interest in jazz, blues and soul, but there are traces here styles he's never explored before - and instruments that have come into prominence only during the last three years.
Already one of the most skilled keyboard players in pop music - "He was playing piano like Oscar Peterson and organ like Ray Charles when I first saw him," says Davis - Winwood proves just as adept with electronic devices on the new album. His string synthesizer passages on "Time Is Running Out," joined to funky clarinet and bass lines and slashing guitar riffs, are both sophisticated and tasteful, and on "Vacant Chair" he manages to make his synthesizer sound remarkbly like a soprano saxophone.
But for all his instruments prowess, Winwood is perhaps most impressive when he sings. The haunting, wistful quality of his vocals on "Midland Maniac," a song on which he also plays all the instruments, and the too -long "Let Me Make Something in Your Life" are enormously moving - and the high points of both songs. The decline of energy in his music seems to have meant an increase, not a loss, of soulfulness.
At the same time, Winwood seems to have become more eclectic than ever in his musical tastes. During his "sabbatical" he played on sessions with reggae, salsa, West African "high life" and even classical performers, but eschewed rock 'n' roll. And when it came time to record some of the songs she's written, Winwood chose to work with an American funk rhythm section and a reggae guitar whiz, Junior Marvin of Bob Marley and The Wailers.
"Steve is like a sponge. "he absorbs styles and adapts them to himself in such a way that nothing ight, and the Latin-flavoured "Luck's In" shows why: Winwood begins with a salsa-style piano "montuno" figure that is later echoed in the bass line and then introduces some rock 'n' roll guitar licks before returning to his starting point with a concluding round of brazilian-style percussion.
There is so much intelligence and liveliness in this music that it dispels any doubt that Winwood isn't fully recovered from the combination of peritonitis and disenchantment that kept him out of action for so long. He is already busy at work on his next album, and there is talk of him touring the U.S. early next years, but "Steve Winwod" has turned out to be worth the wait.