Though Paul Winter is today known for his blend of world music and new age as leader of the Paul Winter Consort, in the early days of his career, he was the leader of a promising jazz band. Winning a contest that landed his mostly collegiate band a record contract with Columbia Records, Winter sought veterans to round out his group, while also applying and receiving the opportunity to lead his band for six months into Latin America on a very successful U.S. State Department-sponsored goodwill tour. This compilation combines selections from his first three albums for Columbia, all long out of print, adding previously unissued performances by various lineups of his early-'60s sextets. The detailed booklet includes extensive liner notes about the evolution of the band and some of its experiences. On the first disc, the lineup includes the alto saxophonist with trumpeter Dick Whitsell, baritone saxophonist Les Rout, pianist Warren Bernhardt, bassist Richard Evans, and drummer Harold Jones. The energetic hard bop opener, "A Bun Dance," penned by pianist Norman Simmons, features tight ensembles and lively solos. Evans penned the exotic, Latin-flavored "Casa Camara," a lush work that deserves to be more widely known. No one can remember who wrote "Mystery Blues," given that the title is also unknown; in any case, it is a spirited, playful number that would have been a perfect set closer for a gig, featuring a raucous chorus by Rout and Evans' sublime bass. The scoring of reeds and horn gives Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez" a very different sound than typically heard on jazz records of the era, with Winter's emotional alto sax standing out. The seven tracks from a 1962 concert at the White House are all previously unissued. "Bell and Horns" is an obscurity penned by vibraphonist Milt Jackson, which serves as their lively introduction to the invited audience. Bernhardt contributed the loping jazz waltz "Pony Express" in honor of the Kennedy's young daughter, Caroline; the composer's engaging piano, Winter's sassy alto, and Rout's soulful baritone make it a memorable performance. Their finale is a brief rendition of Evans' engaging blues "Count Me In."
Disc two features live performances at the University of Kansas City and the University of Colorado, along with a studio date. The personnel had changed, with Jay Cameron now on baritone sax, Chuck Israels (who had recently left Bill Evans) on bass, and Ben Riley on drums (prior to his working with Thelonious Monk). Tom MacIntosh, long an under-appreciated composer who contributed numerous originals to various bands, penned "The Cupbearers," a piece that has become a jazz standard, along with the lovely "Ally." The sextet delivers a stirling rendition of the former, while their emotional interpretation of the latter is also a high point. A third MacIntosh work, the gorgeous ballad "With Malice Toward None," marks Winter's debut recording on soprano sax, which he handles as deftly as his main instrument. Bernhardt's "Suite Port au Prince" is a three-part work with a gospel flavor in its first section, a more exotic air in its second, wrapping with a spirited, chant-like finale with an engaging dance rhythm. For the last four tracks, representing the final recordings of Winter's sextet, Cecil McBee is the bassist and Freddie Waits is the drummer. All of these tracks were taped for the album Jazz Meets the Folk Song. Pianist Denny Zeitlin's contribution, "Repeat," is an early example of his writing which pre-dates his later debut recording for Columbia, and showcases Winter's lively soprano sax, with potent comping by Bernhardt. The old folk song "Lass from the Low Countrie" adds acoustic guitarist Gene Bertoncini and flautist Jeremy Steig; it's another strong feature for Winter on soprano sax. The spiritual "We Shall Overcome" served as the band's finale, as they were devastated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy only days before. This moving performance is a fitting conclusion to a promising group that remained together for only a short time.