The Grand Canyon has long been a place of pilgrimage for me. I came to the Canyon for the first time in the spring of 1963. I was on my first cross-country tour with my jazz sextet, driving from Chicago to Los Angeles on old Route 66. I remember sitting on the edge of the South Rim, playing my soprano sax, just for fun. As the sounds vanished into that vast sea of air between me and the North Rim, 13 miles across, I recall wondering what kind of amazing echoes might be found at the bottom of the Canyon, a mile below.
I thought no more about it, until ten years later when I visited the Canyon again. This time I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail with my horn, and was thrilled to find some of these echoes. As I watched the mule trains go past on the Trail, taking tourists to the bottom of the Canyon, I imagined bringing our whole band down there, with the cello and drums and guitar strapped on the mules, and recording in these extraordinary acoustic spaces.
It took another seven years to realize this fantasy, and in 1980 the Consort and I did come into the Canyon, but in May of 1985, after making a long and challenging hike from the River, we arrived in a spectacular sanctuary embraced by an 800-foot wall of Navajo Sandstone. The sound was sublime, and happened to have the same seven-second reverberation time as in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. From the first notes I played, in this “box canyon,” I knew we had found our “acoustic Shangri-La.” And since this side-canyon had no name on the map, we decided to give it our own name: “Bach’s Canyon.”
In the years since, I have returned to “Bach’s Canyon” several times, and spent many days, playing at all times of morning, noon, and night, with the optimism that this great and reverberant space, under the desert sun and the midnight stars, might evoke from me some special music.
“Canyon Chaconne” began with an improvised passage, and evolved into a theme-and-variations piece, unintentionally having a structure influenced by a lifetime of listening to Bach. I remember, as the variations unfolded, imagining harmonies accompanying these lines, as if some great ghost-organ was coming out of the walls of stone around me. When we got back home with these tapes, I went into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with my colleague Paul Halley, and accompanying me on the pipe organ, he found these harmonies, which then became part of the piece.
“Canyon Chaconne,” of all the recordings I’ve made in this magnificent “love-scape,” over the years, is the piece that comes closest to expressing the depth of my feelings for the Grand Canyon.
(A “chaconne” is a musical structure that was popular in Bach’s day. It was originally a dance form in which a fixed progression of chords was repeated as the basis for each melodic variation.)
Paul Winter is a seven-time Grammy-winning saxophonist, whose sextet was the first jazz group to perform at the White House
in 1962. His second group, the Paul Winter Consort, interweaves sounds from the natural world with classical and ethnic traditions, and the spontaneous spirit of jazz. Their annual Winter Solstice Celebrations and Earth Mass are among the most popular events in New York....more