LIVE: George Winston @ The Charles R. Wood Theater, 11/7/10

I first heard George Winston before New Age was a catch phrase, let alone a dirty word. Far from being the superficial noodlings associated with the genre, I thought his evocative solo-piano pieces were a logical extension of Keith Jarrett’s solo recordings, and that opinion still stands. But unlike many of his contemporaries, there’s a lot more to Winston than New Age, as he amply demonstrated during his recent visit to North Nippertown.

At the Wood Theater in Glens Falls, audience members whose knowledge of Winston ended with the ’80s got an early wake-up call when Winston kicked off his “winter concert” with Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your hand.” Stride piano is about as far from Winston’s better-known works as you can get, but it’s been one of his major concentrations over the last decade. In addition to studying New Orleans piano legends like Longhair, Henry Butler and James Booker, Winston also recorded the Katrina benefit disc, “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions” in 2006, and will soon release a follow-up fundraiser to help repair damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill. He played two tracks from the 2006 disc, the most affecting being “Gulf Coast Lullabye – Part 2.”

The mid-section exploration inside “Baby” used structural patterns that can be found in Winston’s own compositions – specifically in the right-handed improvisations that build elegant structures while the left hand maintains hypnotic foundation figures. This can also be found in Winston’s treatments of material by the late Vince Guaraldi, best known – rightly or wrongly – for composing soundtracks to 16 Peanuts cartoon specials, and more specifically the Peanuts theme song “Linus & Lucy”; about 200 people (myself included) danced onstage to that tune when Winston played the Palace in ’87. While “Linus” wasn’t on the set list at the Wood, we did hear a great medley of pieces from Guaraldi’s latest disc “Love Will Come: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Volume 2.”

The surprises weren’t done yet, though. Winston came onstage carrying a guitar case, and he ended both sets with examples of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, a sub-genre he’s been documenting on his own label Dancing Cat Records. “Slack-key” doesn’t mean the guitar’s out of tune, by the way – it’s a finger-picking style reminiscent of African musicians like D’Gary. In fact, Winston’s show closer was entitled “Zimbabwe”, and it was as mesmerizing as anything he’s done on piano. Winston also brought out a harmonica during the second set to play a muted instrumental that could have been imported directly from a New Orleans street corner.

But while every moment of the evening was beautiful on some level, it was the pieces from his masterworks “Autumn” and “December” that hit the longest home runs; I can still close my eyes during “Color/Dance” and see myself driving through the Berkshires with the leaves at full peak; “Moon” is laced with the crispness that comes with the first cold night of fall; and works like “Thanksgiving” and “Carol of the Bells/Journey” conjure up the sights and sounds of winter in the Northeast. Winston told us that the minimalist composer Steve Reich was a big influence on “Color/Dance”, and you can hear it in the repetitive figures Winston uses as springboards to other places and other emotions.

As blissful as his music can be, Winston’s playing style can be anything but blissful. It has a percussive aspect that can really put a hurting on a piano. (This might have been why the piano was tuned just before the beginning of the show, and then tuned again as soon as intermission started.) Beauty is all well and good, but it’s even better when combined with passion. George Winston is passionate about many things, but it’s the passion in his playing that sets him apart from those who attempt to do what he does, only to create the musical equivalent of flowered wallpaper.

Review by J Hunter

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