STEVE WINWOOD — Roll With It (review)

STEVE WINWOOD — Roll With It album cover Album · 1988 · Jazz Related Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Chicapah
If you’re young enough to not remember the pitiful state music was in during the 80s then consider yourself fortunate. The vicious MTV virus devastated everything in its path throughout that decade. It fiendishly turned attention away from the quality of aural art and the craftsmanship involved in its creation and directed the public’s focus on how clever and/or alluring the video accompanying the 3 to 4 minute song was. If it would’ve been limited to pop that would’ve been horrible enough but it infected every genre. The jazz realm was left out by default but it still suffered from being ignored more than ever. The courageous jazz-influenced popular artists who refused to buckle under the pressure to be cable TV icons instead of serious musicians were a minority but, due to their perseverance, they stood as beacons of hope beaming light over an ocean of toxic waste. That’s how I view those few of Steve Winwood’s stature when I look back on those dark times. He just kept on improving in his ability to play a wide array of instruments, in using his inimitable voice to express his thoughts and in writing exceptional tunes (with the likes of Will Jennings) that would have meaning for folks like me. For staying true to his calling while so many of his peers were succumbing to the dumb-it-down plague he’ll always be a hero in my eyes.

After wowing his admirers with his self-made “Arc of a Diver” in 1980 and then finally garnering world-wide recognition with his superb album-of-the-year, “Back in the High Life,” in ‘86 many of his fans, including me, figured he’d probably reached the apex of his career. We were wrong. In June of ‘88 he released “Roll With It” and, lo and behold, he’d outdone himself again. Despite shooting straight up to #1 and selling over 3 million copies it didn’t nab multiple Grammys like its predecessor did but that’s never been a barometer of greatness for most jazz-minded people, anyway. I consider it to be his best solo record ever and it qualifies as a masterpiece for one central reason: I’ve yet to tire of hearing any of its eight memorable cuts. There are just some CDs I don’t hesitate to pull out of the stacks for any occasion and this is one of those special treasures that never fails to please. At this point Steve was no longer relying solely on his own talents to assemble his songs, recruiting some of the most gifted musicians in the business to assist him, but his decision to include the Memphis horns this time around is what rockets “Roll With It” into the stratosphere. The classy tint of big band jazz they bring to the party is the icing on the cake.

He begins with the album’s namesake #1 hit single tune and it’s a wonderfully uplifting track wherein Winwood’s piano, drums and Hammond organ (as well as the aforementioned horn section) are so powerful they eliminate the need for a single guitar lick. At the time this came out I was in the initial phases of the dissolution of my first marriage and I can’t tell you how encouraging Steve’s soulful delivery of simple lines such as “Hard times knocking on your door/I’ll tell them you ain’t there no more/get on through it/roll with it, baby” were to my fragile psyche. When you chance to hear this number again pay keen attention to Winwood’s subtle B3 solo and incidental riffing toward the end. It’s killer stuff. Another smash, “Holding On,” follows and, like several songs on the album, it owns an unstoppable groove that implores you to jump to your feet and get your blood flowing in the right direction. The tight arrangement of the brass by the Memphis Horns is punchy yet non-intrusive, the tune’s dynamics are electrifying and Steve’s light guitar lines are tasty. “People soul-searching all night long/for a reason to help them live/and I do hope they hear this song/get through take/and you get to give,” he sings and, believe me, I was listening. “The Morning Side” is next, a jazzy ballad with a silky keyboard-generated backdrop that effectively supports Winwood’s emotional voice. You can’t put your finger on the source but there’s a mysterious tension that builds up till John Robinson’s huge (and I mean HUGE) drums make their dramatic entrance on the choruses. Just let me say that I love recording artists who aren’t afraid of pushing the drum fader up to the max in the mix. “Now my life has changed/and now my eyes can see/now I’m living on the morning side/now I’m letting all the sunlight into me/now I’m free,” he cries. Positive messages like that still mean the world to me.

“Put On Your Dancing Shoes” has an irrepressible rhythmic current running through it that delights and the synthesized brass blasts hone a sharp edge as it carries you right out of your obstinate mood. Steve’s guitar playing in the 60s and 70s bordered on annoying but he’d obviously been practicing because he delivers a damn decent R&B-flavored ride on this track. “When you’re all over/when you know you’ve done all that you can do/put on your dancing shoes/it’ll see you through,” he suggests. I took his advice and dang if it didn’t work! One of the best contemporary jazz R&B songs ever written follows, the #6 hit “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do?” Dense keyboards give the tune a percussive pulse that guides it through the verses till Robinson’s fat snare explodes and propels the catchy chorus. “There are times that never come again/memories there for making/when the night calls we better let it in/all this love for the taking,” he sings. Bashiri Johnson’s striking percussion is cool but it’s the backing vocalists (Tessa Niles and Mark Williamson) that are the secret ingredients hoisting this one up and over the top. After a slight tease of an intro for “Hearts On Fire” John’s monstrous drums crash in and it’s Katy bar the door for the next 5 minutes. This track literally sizzles like bacon frying in a hot iron skillet so crank up the stereo and dance your fanny off. The Memphis Horns ring out clear as bells and the screaming Hammond organ solo shows why Winwood is revered as a virtuoso on the instrument. The song’s words about finding new love made me feel there was hope for this romantic fool yet.

The soul/gospel vibe of “One More Morning” arrives at just the right juncture to give the proceedings balance and Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love’s old-school horns grant it a touch of class. Written for his mother, Steve’s passionate vocal will warm even the hardest of hearts as he sings “In the sky, light is coming/so glad we all have this day/we all want one more morning/just to know the night won’t stay.” It’s beautiful. He opts to take it home with what I deem to be Winwood’s most underappreciated composition, “Shining Song.” He programmed a strong, energized drum machine-driven track that motivates relentlessly below the glistening, thickly-layered keyboards and sterling backing vocals. He urges us all to beat down our blues with an elevating shout-out of “Love’s a light/it keeps leading us on/when it’s right/it’ll shine till we’re gone/keep it bright/out there in the unknown/you know we better keep shining, shining/keep shining right down the line.” My favorite moment comes when he lets the bottom drop out directly after his perky mini-moog ride. That’s when the tune acquires a transcendent quality that lifts whatever room you’re in off its foundation. It’s a handful of precious seconds of bliss that don’t grace one’s sphere of existence every day. Take advantage.

I know that some will attribute my affection for “Roll With It” to the therapeutic salve its uplifting tone and message generously applied to my sad, defeated countenance when I needed it most. You’ll get no argument from me. Yet I must add that there have been other songwriters’ albums that have comforted me during various episodes of misery that I no longer listen to because they bring me down. This record makes me look back on an awful period of my life not with sorrow but with a remembrance of the healing Steve Winwood’s music provided. I can give it a spin with full knowledge that it’ll still sound as great and refreshing as it did the first time I played it back in ’88 and when a record holds up in that extraordinary fashion I can’t call it anything but a masterpiece.
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