I don’t think I volunteered to sit in front of Miss Spivey’s Chastain Junior High School fifth-period math class with my guitar. The best I can remember was that she’d heard about a “talkin’ blues” song I’d written (I was in my Bob Dylan phase) that, uh, kinda referenced her. Was it self-aggrandizement, or one of those “I hope you brought enough gum for the entire class” moments? Anyhow, I distinctly remember that among those listening were two of the school’s best basketball players, Brian Smith and George Winston. I probably considered myself rather hot shit at the time, but looking back, I wonder what George must have thought of those grade-school chords and rhymes. I’m not sure I like what I think he thought.
I didn’t know George was a musician, and he may not have been one that far back. I believe he started on the organ (like many of us lads, haw haw!), then he moved to piano. Did he take lessons? A few, but the lion’s share of his musical education was just like mine: listening to records over and over and over and struggling to match the sounds.
Eventually I could fake my way through a mildly amusing set for unsophisticates, but George got so good at it that he made a record for John Fahey’s late, lamented Tacoma label (where Leo Kottke also did some beautiful early work). But it passed me by when it was released in 1972; I still had no idea George was playing professionally. Then, in Jackson, Mississippi, where Miss Spivey’s mini-concert had taken place 15 years earlier, I ran into several women I’d gone to high school with at a record store. Each was clutching a copy of the newly released album AUTUMN by – George Winston! Naturally, I brought one home myself, and sat down to listen. From the very first notes of “Colors/Dance,” the opening piece, I realized I was in the presence of something new.
Last night, my friend Bob Klimecki and I saw George play at the Baruch Performing Arts Center here in New York. To my surprise and delight, another junior-high classmate, Cynthia Keith Gandy (former cheerleader with flaming, Technicolor-red hair; George and I both had crushes on her), was also attending with her husband, so it was old-home night: George never fails to comp in longtime friends wherever he plays, just as he never fails to promote a local food bank and solicit contributions from the audience. I’ve heard him in concert fifteen, maybe twenty times, and I’ve never paid a dime, only cans of food.
A live George Winston show is always a surprise to those who dismiss him as a “New Age” pianist. It’s true that his trademark slow, melodic style defines a certain sound that you can enjoy either consciously or subconsciously, either by paying attention or not. He uses the sustain pedal – that’s the one that lets the vibrating strings keep on going and going, the one with which every kid creates hellish cacaphony the first day she discovers it – to produce rich, cathedral-like harmonics that fade leisurely. Sometimes he plays repetitive passages and elaborates on them in unexpected ways. There are stops and starts, secondary melodies intruding, dramatic dynamics that can imitate a child’s music box or a thunderstorm. The net effect is soothing to many, and this is the music which, about thirty years ago, made George the first genuine star on a small label called Windham Hill Records. The surprise to noninitiates, though, is that this style, which George calls “rural folk piano,” is only a small part of his arsenal. That’s not all he plays in concert, not even half of it.
George soaks up musical influences like a sponge. He plays gorgeous “slipped notes” like one of my favorite pop pianists, Floyd Cramer. From Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, he’s learned the “stride” style, in which the left hand is sort of the rhythm section and the right hand the soloist (last night, he played the thrilling stride piece “Dog and Cat,” left hand canine, right hand feline – and then repeated it in double time!). If you can find it, listen to his stride performance of the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear” on Windham Hill’s Fabs tribute album HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE: he makes it sound as if it was written for the style! He adores Vince Guaraldi, who’s probably best known for the haunting “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” but also scored for piano trio and performed the first 17 animated PEANUTS specials; George has been playing “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” for years and released an entire album of Guaraldi tunes, with another one on the way. New Orleans piano is in his blood, too — Professor Longhair, James Booker and the like — and he can not only replicate, but also add his own statements. A generous, gracious man, George always cites these seminal inspirations in concert notes and song introductions. Perhaps most surprising to newbies is George’s affinity for the Doors. Their first album was an epiphany for him – he was still playing organ at the time – and a few years ago he released an entire album of, yes, Doors tunes. Last night he told me that he’s thinking about a second volume, once he can crack the code on another album’s worth. (He was very excited to have visited the New York City block immortalized on the STRANGE DAYS cover earlier in the day.) One night, at the Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West, I saw George and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek celebrate the album’s release with a magnificent dual piano concert. Ray said he’d played “Light My Fire” a million times, but this would be the first time he didn’t take the keyboard solo: tonight, that was reserved for George!
And all this, mind you, is just at the piano.
When George walks onstage in his stocking feet (soon the left heel will be tapping time and the right foot hovering over the sustain pedal), he’s also carrying a guitar case, and in his pocket is a harmonica. He has long been interested in the native Hawaiian “slack key” guitar style, and he’s newly recorded some of the masters on his own label, Dancing Cat Records. He’s such a natural that he learned slack-key guitar himself, and the aloha fretboard-darting sound informs the rest of his guitar playing. (He ended the show last night by nailing the Doors’ “You’re Lost Little Girl” on guitar.) Then there’s the harp. He’s also recording mentors like Sam Hinton and Rick Epping, and he can play the blues or a jaunty Celtic dance without hesitation or error. His standards on guitar and harmonica are just as high as those for piano; a piece doesn’t make it into the show unless he can kill with it. A while ago I heard him say he’d like to get to the point where he could do complete guitar and harmonica concerts, and judging from the program notes, he made it – although he always amazes me on the piano, I’d still gladly go hear whatever other instruments he cares to play.
George alternates between a “Winter Show” and a “Summer Show,” depending on which one he played the last time he visited your town. So on December 1st, we in New York were treated to the “Summer Show.” The only remotely snowy selection was his stately variations on Pachelbel’s famous D Canon, recorded on what is perhaps the most popular Winston album, DECEMBER. I have no idea what’s next – well, the “Winter Show,” duh – but it’s heartening to watch an accomplished artist keep pushing himself. I would probably be a fan even without the childhood connection – God knows a great many others are – but somehow that makes George’s success even sweeter. I’m telling you, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy – or a harder-working one.