Sound Advice: George Winston

Friday • Live! at the Ludlow Garage

click to enlarge George Winston
George Winston

Consistent success and longevity are both rarities in the music industry, but the almost unhittable trifecta would be adding “genre architect” to that already improbable set of career accomplishments.

Pianist George Winston has notches for that very trio on his Steinway. Winston developed an interest in instrumental music as a child, without regard for genre. At 16, he was enthralled by Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz score for A Charlie Brown Christmas and immediately purchased the soundtrack, but it was The Doors that inspired Winston to play the organ two years later. At 22, exposure to stride players Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller moved him to acoustic piano.

In 1972, little more than a year after he began playing piano, Winston recorded his debut, Piano Solos, for the John Fahey co-founded Takoma Records; the album barely made a ripple. Seven years later, Winston sent a demo to guitarist William Ackerman, who had started his label, Windham Hill Records, in 1976. Ackerman took the tape with him when he toured Europe and was astonished by people’s reactions when he played it. Ackerman offered to produce Winston’s next album, resulting in 1980’s platinum-selling Windham Hill debut, Autumn. The album’s overwhelming success, the quietly mesmerizing style Winston had developed and the label’s equally lucrative run with similarly toned releases led critics to christen Windham Hill’s efforts as “New Age,” anointing Winston as the genre’s godfather. Winston never warmed to that designation, preferring to call his style “rural Folk piano.”

In the three and a half decades since his auspicious sophomore album, Winston has rarely let more than four years pass between releases. He has released more than a dozen solo piano albums and EPs, a few soundtracks and an unlikely album’s worth of harmonica solos, non-cryptically titled Harmonica Solos. In honor of his earliest influences, Winston has released a pair of Vince Guaraldi tribute albums as well as a disc of Doors covers done in Winston’s singular style.

Winston truly shines on stage; he still performs at least 100 nights a year. There isn’t a molecule of creative ego in George Winston, which may be part of the reason why fans feel his music so deeply.

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