Steve Winwood's About Time is hardly among his best-known albums, but it may endure as one of the most important artistic statements of a career that now spans five decades.
"Really for me, About Time was a great success, probably not in terms of sheer numbers," Winwood says of the 2003 CD's commercial reception. "It wasn't as successful ... but I think in terms of what I actually want to put on the record and my own control over what I was able to put on the record it was a great success. Because it was virtually just the album I wanted to make."
Winwood's newly released CD, Nine Lives, continues what he started with About Time. It finds Winwood taking elements of rock, R&B and jazz to create an enticing stylistic blend.
In a sense, though, this cross-pollination of styles on Nine Lives is actually an extension of what Winwood, who just turned 60, has been doing since his days in Traffic in the late '60s and '70s.
With that band, Winwood combined rock, jazz, R&B and folk into a diverse mix that was breezy (on songs like "Glad"), invigorating ("Dear Mr. Fantasy") and frequently both epic and improvisational ("Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys").
Winwood has taken a similar approach on About Time and Nine Lives, adding a healthy dose of world beat. "Hungry Man" is one Nine Lives song that especially draws from world music, while "Secrets" recalls classic Traffic in its tasty use of organ, flute and free-flowing percussion. "Dirty City" reunites Winwood with guitar great Eric Clapton, who adds tasteful and gritty guitar to the track.
Winwood and Clapton first worked together during the late '60s in the short-lived group Blind Faith. They played at a May 2007 charity concert for the Countryside Alliance, an English organization that supports rural communities, and last July at Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago. Most recently they played three shows at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Looking back on Blind Faith, Winwood says the group suffered from the formidable impact Clapton and Winwood had made immediately before with Cream and Traffic, respectively.
"Problems arose when we started to play live, because there was a lot of pressure on us to play music out of our past, rather than the music we were doing at the present moment," Winwood says. "People wanted to go and hear rock anthems like [Cream's] 'Sunshine of Your Love.'
"I think rather than address it and sort it out, we kind of just drifted apart," he says.
"But luckily we had made the album, and I think the album represented very well what we wanted to do."