- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Steve Winwood

Nine Lives

Columbia Records

Steve Winwood’s ninth solo album, aptly titled “Nine Lives,” traces the arc of one of the great and most varied careers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The nine songs touch on influences from Mr. Winwood’s teenage years in the Spencer Davis Group — the rhythm-and-blues band from the British Invasion era that gave us the classic rock staple “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” — to his mid-1980s incarnation as a high-gloss peddler of slickly produced chart-topping ballads and everything in between.

Known as an eclectic, progressive artist, Mr. Winwood draws on a variety of musical traditions, including gospel, Afro-pop, samba, soul and blues, to produce a driving, forceful, energetic sound. Because he achieved so much success while so young, Mr. Winwood is relatively spritely for a rocker of his vintage, just shy of 60. (His legendary group Traffic already had disbanded at least once before he reached the tender age of 22.)

The power of his voice has diminished over the years, but on “Nine Lives,” it’s the least of the instruments at his disposal. The lyrics (never Mr. Winwood’s forte) function chiefly as rhythmic place holders, but his voice still soars on a few tracks. The jazzy “Fly,” for instance, incorporates digressive flute parts (reminiscent of Chris Wood’s playing with Traffic) with the crisp, airy drumming of Mr. Winwood’s 1986 smash “Higher Love.”

The primary sound on “Nine Lives” is Mr. Winwood’s masterful organ playing, particularly his work on the Hammond B3. He has a remarkable level of control over this versatile instrument, softly simmering behind a bluesy Jose Pires de Almeida Neto guitar solo on “Raging Sea” and sermonizing with shimmering sustains on “We’re All Looking.” Even more remarkably, Mr. Winwood plays all the bass parts on “Nine Lives” with the Hammond pedals.

Mr. Winwood reaches back into his past association with legendary guitarist Eric Clapton in the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith for the psychedelic-era groove “Dirty City,” probably the most straight-up rock ‘n’ roll song on the disc. Mr. Clapton adds an extended solo on the track, playing over the last two minutes of the song.

Most of the tracks on “Nine Lives” tracks have an extended, jammy feel. Only one clocks in at less than four minutes, and most range between six and seven minutes. This gives the musicians — in particular Guyana-born drummer Richard Bailey and percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche — lots of room to open up and extend themselves. The track “Hungry Man” opens with a barrage of African rhumba guitar and features a multilayered rhythm track that incorporates conga-driven Afro-Cuban beats.

“Nine Lives” is not a faultless album. If the sound of a noodling soprano sax sets your teeth on edge with bad associations of Kenny G, a few tracks here will be hard to appreciate.

Ultimately, “Nine Lives” is just more proof of Mr. Winwood’s remarkable talent for stylistic syncretism and the creative passion he has sustained over five decades as a working musician.

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