Steve Winwood has always thrown plenty of ingredients into his music. Take his unique, timeless voice -- which, by the way, is sounding better than ever -- his longtime love of R&B, some contemporary soul grooves, a couple of spiritual ballads and his formidable experience as a rock heavyweight, put them all together and you arrive at Junction Seven.
That's the title of the new album by this master of music, whose experience and influence now extends over more than 30 years and speaks to several generations of pop, rock and R&B fans and music makers. It's a record that sees him back on a solo path, but with a formidable support cast. Co-production comes that that mighty American recording guru Narada Michael Walden, while the album also contains new collaborations with his longtime musical kindred spirit Jim Capaldi and guest appearances by Lenny Kravitz, Nile Rogers, and Des'ree.
Junction Seven is the one Steve takes off the motorway to reach his Gloucestershire home, where he lives with his wife Eugenia, the project manager for the new record and also his co-writer on four of its 11 songs. Their creative partnership was a first, even though Steve's wife has for years handled many of their business affairs. "This was the firs time we had written together," he says, adding with a smile, "we could work out the publishing cut in bed perhaps."
Winwood remembered working with Walden on an all-star tribute to Curtis Mayfield at the 1994 Grammy Awards, and as he started to plan J7, invited Narada to come to England for an exploratory week or so. They struck up an instant creative chemistry. It was there, at Steve's Netherturkdonic studios, that he and Narada set to work on a project that saw them finding a 'junction' indeed, sharing writing credits on 8 tracks.
"I wanted to work with a co-producer who was a musician," says Steve. "He has an even wider, more diverse background than I do, starting from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, complicated intricate jazz, right through to Whitney Houston. I come in the middle there somewhere."
J7 boasts a winning combination of diverse musical styles united by powerful grooves and positive emotions. "Spy in the House of Love" opens the album in high gear, a classic rock rhythm accentuated by Winwood's scorching guitar licks. The beautiful spiritual ballad "Angel of Mercy" underlines his famous mastery, not only of guitar by Hammond organ, while Kravitz adds guitar o the soulful "Let Your Love Come Down", the result of a backstage meeting after Lenny's Wembley Arena show in March 1996. "Lenny has a great vibe," says Steve, "and it really shines through on this track."
Other highlights include "Gotta Get Back To My Baby", a Latino-style piece inspired by Winwood's love of Cuban music and rhythms. The track is illuminated by many Cuban musicians, with contributions from Walfredo Reyes on percussion, his father Walfredo Reyes Sr on timbales and brother Daniel on congas. Winwood himself arranged the killer horn section with Rebecca Mauleon-Santana, who plays piano. "I've always loved Cuban and salsa music," Steve says, "and this was a great opportunity to play with these great musicians and do something different on this album."
"Just Wanna Have Some Fun" is an upbeat, stimulating dance track, while "Plenty Lovin'" is a sexy, soulful duet with Des'ree. "She has a beautiful voice that was just right for this song. She did a great job." "Lord of the Street" closed that album with a jazz vibe that hints at the junction between Narada's jazz background and Steve's Traffic era of "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys".
The album's one cover version prompts a poignant story. In April 1996, Steve worked with another giant among R&B produces, Nile Rogers, in Japan on a "producers' showcase' special. The pair knew each other from the time Rogers played on Winwood's 1986 US No. 1 single "Higher Love"; fellow guests on the show included other world famous friends of Rogers' such as Sister Sledge, Simon LeBon and the reunited Chic, featuring his longtime production partner Bernard Edwards. "Bernard did this show, went to bed and died," says Steve. "I didn't know him well, of course he was Nile's lifetime buddy, and it was a big shock to everybody on the show." That sad news led to a deeply respectful cover for the new album of Sly and the Family Stone's classic "Family Affair". With Nile on the rhythm guitar, "we arranged it in the style of a Chic song, and dedicated it to Bernard."
J7 is also so-called because it's the 7th Winwood solo album in a career that, as all devotees will know, first sparkled into life in 1963 when, at age 15, he joined Birmingham R&B combo The Spencer Davis Group. A string of international smash hits followed, including "Somebody Help Me" and "Gimme Some Lovin'".
By the time Steve left them in 1967, they were giants of the British pop scene, but Winwood was hankering after some new rock experimentation, which he found with astonishing results. Firstly with Eric Clapton in the stellar, but short-lived, Blind Faith, whose solo album was a No. 1 record and produced the timeless "Can't Find My Way Home". Then Steve hit Traffic, whose influence is felt more strongly than ever in the late 1990's music of Paul Weller, Kula Shaker and many others.
Traffic filled a niche that no other band came near, producing such classic albums as Mr Fantasy, which celebrates its 30th anniversary at the end of 1997, John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Traffic was Winwood's home until his decision to make the solo move in the mid-1970's.
It'll be 20 years ago this summer that Steve Winwood signaled the start of that new phase -- two decades in which his commercial and creative achievements have known almost no bounds. From the critical acclaim afforded that first solo outing and 1981's Arc of a Diver (a solo tour de force featuring "While You See a Chance") to the triple Grammy-winning, multi-platinum, star-studded Back in the High Life (and its smash hit singles like "Higher Love" and the title track), to the R&B celebration of Roll With It (with its US No. 1 title song).
After 1990's Refugees of the Heart and some extensive international touring to support the album, Winwood took a break from his solo career to join with former Traffic colleague and writing partner Jim Capaldi on Far From Home. The first new Traffic album in 20 years, it was again backed by much road work, including an appearance at the 25th anniversary Woodstock Festival and joining Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead on their final stadium tour of the US.
"What occurred to me was that of late, over the past couple of albums, Traffic and Steve Winwood had been getting a bit too close," he says. "So I decided I was going to divorce the two and have 2 completely separate entities. Traffic is a great vehicle in which to do things I can't do on the solo stuff. Obviously it's gone on the back burner but it's something I certainly intend to work on again. I love working with Jim, and whether it's writing or playing, he continues to inspire me."
In addition to his own mighty career, Winwood's list of collaboration with other artists is awesome. In addition to those namechecked already, he has worked with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim, Jimi Hendrix, Marianne Faithfull, James Brown, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Christine McVie, Billy Joel, George Harrison and more recently Paul Weller.
Now, armed with J7 and the first single "Spy in the House of Love", Winwood is preparing for imminent live action, first in Europe then in the States, heading back to the kind of compact clubs in which he first made his name stoking a red-hot organ with Spencer Davis. "I thought it would be fun to play a few clubs for a change. It'll be something special, something I haven't done n a long time. Especially for this record, it's a kind of high energy sound. It'll be like back to the early days." Winwood's live performances never fail to distinguish him as an accomplished multi-instrumentalist whereby he continues to strive to meet new challenges he sets for himself yet with such ease as one review of his live show stated, "Winwood's fun is contagious."
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