Paul Winter's annual winter-solstice concert -- performed in, and broadcast nationwide from, the century-old Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for the past 25 years -- is a musical event defined as much by its physical dimensions as by its musicians' talents or diversity. With 15-story-tall ceilings stretching 605 feet long and holding nearly 3,000 people, notes pronounced inside the Cathedral reverberate for a canyonesque seven full seconds: Every sound in the Silver Solstice recording, also done live in the Cathedral, is huge, from Winter's Pan-like soprano-sax pipings to the tiniest rattle of the so-called "Solstice tree," a massive Tannenbaum of gongs, bells, chimes and other metallic percussions.
Besides pure physical and spiritual girth, Winter's other defining objective with the solstice concert is breadth. Since his mid-'60s appearance on the jazz scene, Winter's interests have fanned out more and more into the "world music" scene which he, arguably, helped create. So while there's a distinctly pan-Celtic, pagan thread running through some of Silver Solstice -- bolstered by the presence of renowned uilleann pipe and low-whistle player Davy Spillane -- the double disc becomes more purposeful when bouncing between jazz and classical, gospel and funk, Russian folk dance, Afro-rhythm, and Winter's other obsession, nature sounds and animal calls.
But if Paul Winter, through his well-publicized forays into Brazilian and other globally minded musics, helped define what we call "world music," then the problem --apparent throughout Silver Solstice -- is that it seems that's about where he stopped. Where it might once have seemed spiritually novel to wed the distinctly American (jazz, gospel) to the distinctly foreign (Russian folk, African drumming), today, the Paul Winter Consort's efforts seem timid even within the aggrandizing reverberation of St. John the Divine.
Like much of the global-drumming mish-mash that Silver Solstice guest Mickey Hart has conceived over the past decade, Winter's arrangements and compositions work in a musical language whose rhetoric is predicated on a less inclusive, less globalized world -- one in which cross-fertilization points towards a smaller and therefore, the reasoning goes, more spiritually joined world. But since the world has shrunk -- and since, when it happened, we discovered that the artsy neo-folk music employed in such a classical setting as Silver Solstice was well anachronistic already -- what Solstice does more than bring the world together is venerate a spiritual and historical, peaceful past that never happened.
That being said, as a mini-salvo in the Fox News-generated War on Christmas, Silver Solstice does its job marvelously. Bringing peaceful, transcendental music of ancient and foreign birth into the Cathedral highlights the true spirituality of late December: When the shortest days and longest nights approach, we're all looking for something to remind us that the cycle will keep on going. As artist-in-residence at St. John the Divine, that is what Paul Winter has done for a quarter-century -- and likely will continue to do for another.