By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
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By Rocks Off
No one predicted George Winston would change music in 1981. Nine years earlier the unassuming pianist recorded an independent album which sold modestly, Ballads and Blues - 1972, and he wasn't heard from on record again. When he returned to the studio in 1981 and recorded Autumn, an album of impressionistic solo piano pieces inspired by Winston's native Montana, few thought the album would fare much better than his first. This was the era of new wave and synthesizers, and drum machines were about to dominate popular music. Instrumental music, be it jazz, classical or any other genre, accounted for a minute percentage of record industry sales, and the industry only gave lip service to marketing its instrumental product. So if an album of piano solos had sold 50,000 copies, it would have been considered a major success for an unknown pianist on an unknown independent label called Windham Hill.
Autumn defied record industry wisdom and went gold and, a few years later, platinum. Winston's two subsequent recordings, Winter into Spring (1982) and December (1983), also quickly went gold and eventually achieved platinum status. Winston's albums of seasonal piano music were a commercial gold mine. "If I like a song, it reminds me of a season," Winston says. "It always has. I'm just kind of wired that way naturally, probably because of the Montana upbringing."
The melodic nature of Winston's three seasonal albums helped define the Windham Hill sound, and their commercial success ushered in the New Age movement. Melodic instrumental albums became the trend, and Windham Hill was at the forefront of the New Age movement. In turn, other New Age labels popped up trying to get on the bandwagon. While some critics dismissed New Age as prosaic yuppie music, the fact is New Age breathed new life into instrumental music as the genre's record sales expanded through the mid to late '80s. For his part, Winston wasn't bothered by the criticism and has never let himself be defined by the New Age moniker.
"Somebody will call the music whatever they'll call it," he says, "but it doesn't matter what anything is called; it matters what it is. Is it as good as I can get it? Is it better? Artists should really make up what they are. They should call themselves something. You can't just expect everybody to know who you are. I do melodic folk piano, and when I do other styles I'll say that's rhythm and blues or that's stride piano. I just do what I feel."
In fact, despite being one of the fathers of the New Age movement, Winston was never worried about being pigeonholed by his impressionistic albums. His concerts are filled with his seasonal music, but they often include stomping compositions by Professor Longhair and bluesy Vince Guaraldi tunes such as "Linus and Lucy." Winston will break from the piano and play solo harmonica or Hawaiian slack key guitar in concert. The variety stems from the melodic pianist's roots.
"I was a fan of music growing up," Winston says, "particularly the pop stuff in the late '50s and early '60s. I'm much more a fan of organists than pianists. I got a compact organ and started playing in bands in the '60s. 1967 was a great year with the Doors, Procol Harum, so much great stuff, I just couldn't listen anymore. I had to do something with this. I got in a band and it never was quite right. I heard Fats Waller finally later in 1971 and I went, 'Oh. Solo piano. Not organ in a band. Okay. I got it. Oh, man. What a mountain that is.' I'm still not close to being on top of it, probably never will be."
While focusing on piano, Winston discovered the Hawaiian slack key guitar in 1974. A solo, finger-picked acoustic guitar tradition that involves a variety of hammering techniques to create unique tones, the slack key guitar has some folk and blues sounds but isn't really part of either genre. Sounding nothing like stereotypical Hawaiian music, slack key is relatively unknown outside the Hawaiian Islands, though it predates the more popular steel guitar by about 50 years. "I just knew there was something unique missing," Winston says of his passion for slack key guitar. "Then I heard the [slack key] players and I said, 'That's it. That's what I've been missing. There's the dark matter of the universe, a big, huge thing right there.' Of course, a lot of other things supplement that, but that's the huge, missing thing."
In addition to playing the instrument, Winston has produced 18 Hawaiian slack key guitar recordings by native artists on his own label, Dancing Cat. He plans on producing more than 80 slack key guitar recordings. "I want to create a slack key encyclopedia," he says of the project. "Someone 100 years from now can get it and say, 'So that's what that was back in the 20th century.' It's not a record business thing. If this were a record business thing, you wouldn't be doing slack key to make money. You do it because you love it."
George Winston the slack key guitarist and record producer, however, has not overshadowed George Winston the pianist. After a break from solo piano recordings, Winston recorded his fourth seasonal album, Summer, in 1991. Not surprisingly, it quickly went gold. In 1995 he stuck gold again with Forest and took home a Grammy. One year later he mined another gold album with Linus & Lucy -- The Music of Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi, who was most famous for scoring the music to the popular Peanuts television specials, has been an influence on Winston for several years. Winston eventually filled the legendary Guaraldi's shoes by scoring the soundtrack to This Is America Charlie Brown -- This Birth of the Constitution.