Several Seasons of Success
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.
"I don't play that much like Vince really hardly at all," Winston says. "He's more of somebody that I play 57 of his songs. It's like I play Guaraldi, I don't play Bach. There are definitely Guaraldi techniques that I've used, but not that many. There's a certain weaving right-hand lick that I like that Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears used to do that same kind of thing. It's almost bebopish a bit. That and its variations added to my vocabulary. But I don't use too many of his techniques unless I'm playing his songs."
Winston has devoted himself to analyzing the styles of the great stride pianists Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Professor Longhair and James Booker. His latest challenge is learning the techniques of famed New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. "That's just totally impossible," he says, "but I'm better for trying. I've wanted to incorporate his stuff, his sense of creativity, certain things that he does; he's like a complete band with the R&B stuff.
"James Booker is really the basis for my piano language, how I think of the piano. What Henry Butler's doing for me is helping me break it up, keep it going and change it. I find myself doing something and sometimes going, 'No, no, no, this is just copying Henry; this isn't what I want to do. I'm doing Henry. I'm not doing me.' Which of course he would not encourage either. But it's fun to learn something and then when you do, you go, 'Yeah, but this isn't me.' It's great to have teachers because they show you the road, but ultimately, I'm not them. I can't do them as well as them. Then later it evolves into, 'you know and I don't want to.' I don't really want to be Henry Butler. I almost do. But I'd miss the other things. It's nice to not want to be somebody. It takes you so long to get there. I never wanted to be me until two or three years ago. I said, 'Okay that's good enough. Not the best, but it's good enough.' "
"Good enough" has sold millions of albums, filled concert halls and inspired numerous pianists to tackle a more melodic style, investigate stride piano lineage and learn more about Vince Guaraldi. Upcoming projects for Winston include a melodic folk album inspired by the Great Plains, another Guaraldi tribute, a Professor Longhair tribute and an album of R&B/soul ballads. Winston maintains a simple philosophy for his projects and concerts, which could explain his popularity.
"The listener's always right," he says. "They like what they like, I like what I like, and we're all correct. The listener is always right, but so is the player. The player is right, too. When I play, I try to take into account the audience and myself. We're relating here. I'm not going to play "The Saints Go Marching In" rhythm and blues style for 45 minutes, but I'm not going to play the whole December record either. So, what do we both want here? I want there to be some surprises."
George Winston performs at Rice University, January 21, 7:30 p.m.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.