George Winston Live in Concert: Music for Contemplative Solitude

Given my predilection for 20th century classical, ambient, and drone music I seldom have the opportunity to experience my favorite artists performing live as few visit the States, (or in many cases they stopped breathing many years ago). So when I learned that George Winston, legend and icon of Ackerman’s Windham Hill record label was offering a concert performance in my fair city I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

For the few of my readers yet unfamiliar with Winston’s beautiful music, on his website he describes his style as “rural folk piano.” Rateyourmusic.com tags him as Neoclassical New Age, Christmas Music, Modern Classical, and Jazz and employs descriptors including, “pastoral, peaceful, passionate,” and “bittersweet.”

Winston has two primary concert themes – a Summer Show and a Winter Show, each showcasing selections from his catalog related to those seasons. This week I had the pleasure of attending The Summer Show which was a treat as I’d previously gravitated toward his autumnal and wintery early recordings like his certified triple-platinum 1982 classic, December. This concert offered fresh, new content from one of my favorite pianists in an intimate live setting. And intimate it was, indeed! Only twenty or so rows of folding chairs were set up immediately in front of the stage and there were but two hundred in attendance and I was honored to be among them.

Initially I’d wondered if the experience would be a drowsy evening of so-called new age key-plinking, but it was nothing of the sort. Winston live would never be mistaken for a Steve Roach sleep concert – even at 70 and in his health condition Winston was lively, spirited, bursting with zestful energy, and his performances were dynamic and varied tremendously as he transformed from interpreting one musical period or performer to the next.

The performance featured not only standards from his early Windham Hill repertoire but also Winston’s own stylistic interpretations of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, the classic stride-piano technique of numerous New Orleans R&B pianists like Henry Butler, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and John Cleary, Hawaiian Slack Key solo guitar, (a unique fingerstyle tradition of the island), and Winston’s distinctive harmonica stylings as well.

For Christmas of 2013, Jay Gabler penned an incredibly thorough feature on Winston published by Classical MPR. The article summarizes the Winston concert experience so effectively that little more needs to be said so I will encourage my readers to visit his full original write-up. But a few of his key remarks really touch upon what I appreciated specifically about this concert experience so I’ll share a few excerpts.

One particularly captivating number was “Muted Dream,” from his latest 2017 effort, Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit, which sounded like a prepared piano composition. (George manipulates the strings inside the piano during the piece.) Gabler describes the technique thusly:

Winston acknowledged the influence of towering minimalist composer Steve Reich; in a Cage-ian flourish, Winston sometimes reaches inside the piano to mute the strings as he plays. Winston also shares the interest of minimalist composers — and, by extension, ambient musicians such as Brian Eno — in crossing the boundaries of genre to grab rhythmic ideas from jazz, from pop, and from international musical traditions.

And regarding the fascinating slack-key style:

Winston is a practitioner, fan, and preservationist of guitar music played in the Hawaiian slack-key tradition; with its open tuning and alternating-bass pattern, the slack-key style is just the kind of thing that might interest 20th-century musical adventurers from John Adams to Sonic Youth.

Of Winston’s harmonica playing, Gabler notes:

Harmonica is yet another of George Winston’s musical interests; he offered a sample of his technique at the Fitzgerald, and his approach is fascinating. As Winston plays, he effects rapid dynamic changes; he doesn’t sound like Larry Adler or Little Walter so much as he sounds like a Steve Reich tape loop in which a snippet of sound is played over and over again at different pitches and tempos, creating a hypnotic effect that can be disrupted by sudden stops, starts, and reversals.

But my favorite segment of the feature is Gabler’s summary of Winston’s characteristic and trademark sound:

Winston’s music sounds distinctly urban, with its smooth sonorities and delicate textures, but it evokes a sense of the rural and the vernacular in its sense of suspended time, of burbling placidity that flows like a brook rather than marching like a fugue.

Quite poetic! For those musicians among my readers curious about Winston’s choice in instruments, the Summer Show program included the following information:

Instruments:

Piano: George Winston plays Steinway pianos

Guitar: Martin D – 35 (1966) with a low 7th string added

Harmonica: combining Hohner Big Rivers with key of low D Cross Harp reed plates

Winston has released fourteen solo piano albums, as well as four benefit EPs and five soundtracks, and the concert inspired me to venture further beyond my familiarity with his early Windham classics to explore his complete catalog.

It was equally wonderful to experience him playing early staples like the hauntingly captivating and magical “Woods” from his very first Windham Hill release, Autumn (1980) and “Variations on the Kanon” (by Pachelbel) from December live, up close, and personal. He closed with a Doors cover, as featured on his album, Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors released in 2002, and for his encore concluded with a charming traditional fiddle tune, “Sandy River Belle.”

It was a concert to remember, and instantly became one of my favorite live music experiences. An RYM user described Winston’s music as that of “contemplative solitude” and it was precisely the medicinal music I needed at this transitional time in my life. Thank you, George.

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