Edgy Piano?

George Winston arrives to give two shows--and help out some good causes

Pianist George Winston needs no introduction, right? He's the touchy-feely guy whose seasonally-oriented albums, with titles like December, Summer and Autumn, released on the iconic New Age record label Windham Hill, have warmed the hearts of Birkenstock-wearing vegans for more than two decades.

Easy as it is to confine him to that tidy cubbyhole, there's much more to Winston.

He cites Vince Guaraldi, Professor Longhair and The Doors as being influences, and he has recorded albums in tribute to them. Winston's own record label, Dancing Cat, has for years released albums by the purveyors of his favorite music--that of the Hawaiian slack key guitar, which he also plays.

And Winston's most recent album, 2004's Montana--A Love Story, features interpretations of the music of Mark Isham, Philip Aaberg, Sam Cooke, Leadbelly, Rentaro Taki and Frank Zappa, traditional folk tunes from Quebec, Ireland and China, and a smattering of Winston originals. The CD is beautiful, complex and sometimes, dare we say it, edgy.

The pianist will share some of that music and more with Tucson audiences when he returns to the Old Pueblo for solo concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Jan. 17 and 18, at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

Winston took a few minutes from his tour last weekend to call us and chat about his music, his career and the new CD--a benefit for hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast--that he hopes to release this year.

Although Montana is a tribute to the state of his birth, the songs aren't necessarily ones with which Winston grew up.

"Well, (Cooke's) 'You Send Me' I certainly heard when I was growing up. It's more than just that, though," he said. "All the albums I do are thematically oriented. They are like the soundtracks of a movie. I'm just putting the songs together that for me seem to have fit the theme over time.

"So the album is kind of a love story about Montana, my growing up there, my present relationship with Montana, the friends I had growing up and some of the friends I have there now."

And despite his catalog of more than a dozen albums, Winston said making records is not his favorite activity.

"It's secondary work, this recording. The main thing is the live playing. Composing is not really even a preference. It occurs maybe a couple of times a year, not very often. I never try to do it."

Winston said he knows he's not a composer whose work will be remembered in perpetuity.

"Most of the things I compose evaporate pretty quickly. Sometimes there's a sequence of something I write that I will wind up using in an interpretation of somebody else's song. There are also a lot of 'almost were' things I write. Almost, but not quite. Like in a basketball game, it's almost a basket. It's not two points, but it's not an airball, either."

Winston said he recognizes his strength is in interpretation, which he called "my main thing in terms of music."

The extent to which his interpretations are improvised, though, varies. "It usually depends on the piece of music. Usually the structure is set up, and it can be subtle improvisation, where 5 percent of it is improvised, or it can be that half of it is improvised. Each song I play, though, I have to have a relationship with."

Winston reported that he has been building a relationship with a new set of songs for a new album, tentatively titled Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions, which he hopes to release this year. The proceeds would benefit relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"But I'm not totally sure it is really going to happen. A lot of details need to be worked out. I hope it will. But hope has nothing to do with reality."

Winston long has maintained an emotional and artistic relationship with the music of New Orleans, particularly R&B, the stride style of piano and influential Crescent City musicians such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John and Henry Butler.

But he'd like to make a CD that will benefit affected areas and populations in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas as well, he said.

Creatively, Winston is wrestling with finding material that fits his style and theme. "I am asking myself, 'Do I really have something here?' I think there is a 50/50 chance that I do."

At his Tucson appearances, Winston says he is likely to play a couple of tunes on slack-key guitar and maybe one on harmonica, in addition to manning the keyboard.

He has requested that audience members bring nonperishable food items to his concerts for donation to the Tucson Community Food Bank. Proceeds from the shows also will benefit that cause.

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