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Go Island Records

WHATEVER BECAME of Steve Winwood? Ever since the demise of the British rock quartet Traffic when the one-time member suddenly vanished from the rock and roll scene, his fans have been asking this question. Winwood, who recorded his first hit song at the tender age of 14 and went on to rock stardom as a member of such bands as the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith and Traffic, adopted the lifestyle of a mysterious recluse and for almost two years remained virtually unheard from.

But while hidden from the public view, Winwood continued to be as involved with music as ever, exploring and experimenting with musical forms from around the world. Now, breaking his silence, an understated and unusual resurfacing appears to be in progress. For example, Winwood turned up as a sideman on Toots and the Maytals' recent Reggae Got Soul album, playing organ and piano, and he has produced and engineered a jazz-influenced album of West African "High Life" music by Remi Kabaka and Abdul Lasisi Amao, on which he also provided guitar and keyboard work.

The now 28-year-old Winwood's most recent effort is Go, a strange and spacey album that combines elements from electronic music, jazz, classical music, reggae, salsa, and just the slightest touch of rock and roll. Recorded with Japanese avant-garde composer and percussionist Stomu Yamashta and former Santana guitarist Michael Shrieve. Go is an extraordinarily innovative work which demands more than casual listening. Yet the heavy emphasis on electronic music--the sounds of synthesizers and the electronic instrumental effects throughout--make listening a bizarre, somewhat alienating experience.

The liner notes explain that Go is a "genuine concept album" which through its music reflects themes of change and polarity--"opposites colliding, reality and fantasy shifting into one another, re-birth through suffering and defeat turned to victory."

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THE STORY LINE women into the songs is as convoluted as the philosophical themes underlying them are abstract, but it basically emerges as follows: Kurata, a sort of interplanetary Kung-Fu champion, encounters and is challenged by a mysterious rival, Fu-Shen. Soundly trounced, the humiliated Kurata loses all that he holds most dear--his wife, his eyesight, his power and his status. To recover, he slips off to an ambiguous other world--"a physical and mental wilderness"--where he learns that by suffering and surviving he can become invulnerable. Then, having regained his strength, Kurata crosses back to the world of reality. As the album ends, Kurata effortlessly triumphs over the evil Fu-Shen and celebrates the remarkable metamorphosis of defeat into victory.

The story behind Go is at best difficult to follow. But to augment the confusion, the story actually starts at the beginning of side two and ends with the final track of side one--an unconventional approach to be sure, yet perhaps an intentional choice, emphasizing in still another fashion the ideas of contradiction and polarity so integral to the album's thematic focus.

Stomu Yamashta conceived the ideas behind the album, as well as most of its musical composition. Like Winwood, Yamashta is 28 and a former child prodigy. As a teenager he performed with John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. His more recent achievements include writing the soundtracks for such films as Ken Russell's The Devils, Altman's Images and Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. In addition, Yamashta has toured with and composed pieces for the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Ballet and a number of jazz-rock bands.

ELECTRONIC MUSIC is Yamashta's special love and talent but to my mind, the best moments of Go come when the music moves away from that medium and allows the opportunity for the strengths and style of Stevie Winwood to emerge. Winwood, who sings the part of Kurata and also plays guitar, piano and organ, puts in an impressive performance. His childlike yet soulful vocals are at their finest in "Ghost Machine," a fast-paced number based loosely on an Afro-Cuban rhythmic pattern with an aggressive rock beat, and on "Winner/Loser" which is in fact a Winwood composition--his only score among the 14 songs which make up the album.

In these days of the rock and roll superstar, it is refreshing to see someone like Stevie Winwood willing to take supporting roles in order to learn and experiment with new musical styles. Yet the talents he has to offer are considerable, and while he sings and plays Yamashta's music with skill and authority, his unique abilities are allowed to remain unrealized. With each successive listening to Go, the answer to the question posed earlier--"What became of Stevie Winwood?"--becomes more clearly enunciated: he is back, but he still has a ways to go.

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