Seasoned Player

Winter Finally Arrives With Pianist George Winston.
By Mari Wadsworth

FOR THE PAST decade, George Winston has been identified mainly with his self-styled "rural folk" solo piano, and the moody instrumentals that resonate of wide-open spaces, deep forests and the colors and textures of the changing seasons he recalls from his upbringing in Eastern Montana. His compositions wrap around you like a quilt in winter, float in the air like a sunny walk down a country road, infusing the listener with an ethereal sense of place that many instrumentalists strive for but few achieve.

Music "If a piece of music doesn't have a picture with it, it doesn't interest me," he tells me over the phone from his home in Santa Cruz, California. But he's firmly rooted in his role as musician. "Human beings can't imitate the sounds of nature. I may be inspired by the wind, but it has to be a piano sound. I wouldn't expect the wind to be a piano anymore than I'd expect the piano to be a wind."

This musical vocabulary--a word he often returns to to describe the context in which a broad scope of influences fit in--reveals a technical side of Winston hidden within the soulful, organic nature of his music. It may feel spontaneous, but is in fact a very conscious, purposefully articulated way of speaking.

While these images--namely, the pristine changing of four distinct seasons--will become his primary association for all music, his early years in Montana are not in themselves musical. "I didn't come from a musical family. My mom and dad played a little piano, but not too much. I had a few lessons when I was real young, but I wasn't interested. I didn't want to do it."

In fact, it wasn't until after high school that he started on the organ, inspired by the blues, rock, R&B and jazz of the late '60s. Faithfully he'd listen to the radio for the 30 seconds before the hourly news when they'd play instrumentals by then-pop groups like The Ventures, Floyd Cramer, Booker T and the MG's, Junior Walker, Duane Eddy and The Tijuana Brass. R&B icons like Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke also took hold; and in 1971, after hearing recordings of legendary stride pianists Thomas "Fats" Waller and Teddy Wilson, Winston switched to piano and began working on his own brand of pop instrumental music. "I had a few jazz lessons, but I'm mainly self-taught. I hear something I like, and I learn it in all the keys, try to make it part of the vocabulary."

He was 22 then, and a solo career was born. He recorded his first album a year later, Ballads and Blues--1972. Five years later he quit playing. But in 1979 in a downtown Los Angeles library, he discovered New Orleans Piano, an album by late New Orleans pianist and R&B founder Professor Longhair. "It came to the track 'Hey Now Baby,' and things haven't been the same since. For all this I'm doing now, recording slack-key, doing my own recordings, touring...I give great thanks to Professor Longhair, since he gave me the inspiration to play again," he says.

pix While his five recorded albums based on the seasons are thus far his trademark, that's not really where his heart is these days.

"I'm almost done with the melodic (piano). There's going to be one more, called Plains," he says. He's putting the finishing touches on an album of works by late jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi (scheduled for release in 1996), and has plans to record some New Orleans-style and R&B solo piano inspired by the playing of James Booker and Henry Butler.

He cites Booker as his main mentor. "His piano language is mainly the way I think of piano. I look to Waller's stride piano language for some tunes. I like having the three different ways (rural folk, R&B and stride). If I like a tune, I can generally get it to work in one of the three ways."

But these days his heart is in solo guitar, a talent showcased on the recently released soundtrack for Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. "The guitar's about 10 years behind the piano, so it has a rough time sometimes," he says humbly, belying the playfulness, soul and skill on Sadako's solo tracks.

But the feel of his solo guitar is not a radical departure from the melodic piano. "Slack key," a Hawaiian fingerpicking tradition that dates back to the 1800s, provides an ideal new set of expressions. "It's hard to describe to people who've never heard it. It's not folk, older jazz or ragtime, it's not blues or country, but it's somewhere in the middle of all those traditions. It's like trying to describe the color green by saying it's not blue and not yellow."

He tries to recall his first introduction to slack key: "I heard some recordings in the early '70s...I think I bought the records because they looked non-commercial. Solo guitar music is my favorite. And I saw 'slack-key guitar,' and when I heard it I knew that's what I'd been looking for: It sounded like spring in Montana."

An evening with Winston is indeed a journey, leaping forward and back from the New Orleans scene of the late 1920s, rock influences of the latter '50s and '60s, from Montana to Mississippi and then back to Hawaii in the 1800s. He's not speaking metaphorically when he says he "sees all music in terms of the seasons." If there's one characteristic that remains constant throughout, it's the promise of change. He tours continuously, and his live performances are about as predictable as the weather.

"The recordings usually have a theme, but the live shows aren't locked into that format. Records take me between seven and 30 years to do, I guess. They're secondary, but they're something I do. I guess it's (analogous to being) a mime, who then once in a while makes a video. I think mainly in terms of the live performance, like 'Oh, I'll play this here.' Sometimes I play in big cities, so I think I'll bring a little rural into the urban."

For the Tucson show, he promises some of the melodic playing from his 1994 release, Forest, along with R&B/jazz standards and that dazzling slack key, played on his custom-made eight-string guitar. Wherever he takes us, it's sure to be an epic adventure.

George Winston presents an evening of solo piano and guitar at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 5, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets range from $15 to $20, available at the TCC and Dillard's box offices. Call 791-4266 for reservations and information. Attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food donation for the Community Food Bank. TW

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