The Hippo


Oct 20, 2019








Courtesy photo.

George Winston 

When: Friday & Saturday, Oct. 23-24, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $50 at  
There will be a canned food drive at the show for New Hampshire Food Bank. 

Folk piano
George Winston comes to Tupelo

By Michael Witthaus

From the Merrimack Valley to Mount Washington, fall is in the air — a perfect time to experience George Winston’s musical interpretations of the seasons. His soothing piano compositions helped launch ethereal Windham Hill Records in the early 1980s. 

On his current tour, Winston follows autumn into winter across two sets; each show is a solo performance. 
“That’s what the music wants,” the pianist said recently. “That’s my temperament anyway.”
Philosophically, Winston’s one-man show is more than a sum of parts. 
“There’s me — what I want to say about a season or a song — then the instrument will show me its tricks,” he said. “Don’t play too many notes, play it fast … the music will always tell me. It never fails.” 
A third element is the tension between “how the song itself wants to be played and how I want it,” Winston said. “So it’s almost like a trio — the instrument, the song itself and me. Even if it’s a song I put together, that’s still the thing.”  
Winston’s musical influences are wide-ranging. At a young age, he was an avid listener, his tastes running towards jazz organists like Booker T. and Jimmy Smith. He was also a big fan of pianist Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts soundtracks. Then he listened to the first Doors album in 1967. “I put it on and ‘Break on Through’ started up,” he said. “It was light years beyond anything I had ever heard. I said, ‘I gotta get an organ and play in a band.’ It was that immediate.”
Four years later, Winston had another epiphany, when he heard a series of solo stride piano recordings made in 1929 by Fats Waller. Both spare and lively, Waller’s sound captivated Winston and instantly altered his musical course. 
“I just left my electric stuff in some garage somewhere,” he said. “I was so past it that I didn’t even sell it.”
Winston came up with a signature style he dubbed folk piano. 
“Stride was hard to play,” he said. “I was trying to get to it the way people pick guitar ballads; folk songs that are simple.”  
In 1972, he made Ballads and Blues for John Fahey’s Takoma Records; it was little noticed. Success came in 1980, when William Ackerman recruited Winston to help launch his new label. 
With four LPs spread across the decade — Autumn, Winter into Spring, December, and Summer — Winston became Windham Hill’s flagship artist. Much to his chagrin, many referred to his music as New Age jazz. 
“When I switched to piano, jazz didn’t work for me anymore [and] folk piano did,” he said. “I love the tradition, but I’m not a jazzer on the piano.  I’ll do Vince Guaraldi and he was a jazz pianist, but I’ll do an R&B-tinged solo, not a jazz-tinged solo.”
Winston has occasional forays with other instruments. He made an album of Hawaiian slack key guitar music based on the children’s novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes with actress Liv Ullman, and a collection of harmonica solos. “I heard the late Sam Hinton and realized harmonica is played solo, as is slack key guitar,” he said. “I like instruments I don’t have to go to, [that] I can just have with me.”
His 40-year output includes an album of Doors covers and two volumes of Guaraldi’s music. He’d love to do the same with Zappa, but translating the late genius is challenging. 
“There’s no Frank Zappa tune I don’t want to play, but I’ve only gotten two to work,” he said. “With the Doors, I have gotten about 30 to work; Vince Guaraldi about 65. and Professor Longhair about 15. But Frank’s are especially hard.” 
Though Winston won a Grammy in 1996, he cares little about the honor — and not because it was for Best New Age Album. 
“There are only two things that are real — the player and the listener,” he said. “Sales, awards, they mean less than nothing to me, I have no consciousness of their existence. They’re just imaginary agreements, like borders of countries, deities, states, presidents, money awards. Hug a friend, that’s real. Some people have the personality for those kinds of things, but I don’t. For me it’s just working on the music and who I am going to play it for. There really is nothing else.” 

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