Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 18/12/2014
published: 9 /
Lisa Torem enjoys a pre-Chorstmas show from jazz pianist and composer, George Winston
There aren’t many opportunities these days to let your guard down and lose yourself in the lure of a lone artist. George Winston still makes it possible.
He entered the room without fanfare, graciously greeted the mostly older audience and sat down at his Steinway as naturally as if he were slinking into his living room armchair. A perfect gentleman, he introduced each piece, recounted how the plains and flora of his youth - his family lived in Montana before moving to Mississippi and Florida - inspired his original compositions, and quickly put us under his spell.
On his current North American tour, he fluxuates between performing a winter or summer set. Not surprisingly, and being the start of the Chicago chilling season, he played his “winter set.” The first selection of his ‘Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving/Mika’s ¾ Blues’ piece celebrated his respect for composer Vince Guaraldi, the late jazz pianist who wrote, among other things, scored for the first sixteen ‘Peanuts’ animated specials. (‘Linus and Lucy—The Music of Vince Guarald, Vol.1’). Sadly, Guaraldi died of a heart attack at age 47 in the prime of his career, but Winston, a huge fan, does an amazing job of interpreting many of his compositions; even ones which never saw the light of day, and topping it off with his own cache of colours and timbre.
“He has a really personal way of doing voicings,” Winston said, about Guaraldi in a piece by Tina Maples, ‘Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’, 1996, ‘Music Just Happens to Winston’.
And so does Winston. His chords go from abstract to simple and back again in a breath.
The swing bass and vibrancy of pedal created a bluesy, jazzy feel and Winston’s precision with the upper register of the keyboard was spot on. “Thank you for letting the endings rings out,” he said, lifting us back into the real world. Fortunately, audiences at Old Town School of Folk Music tend to be an appreciative bunch, and it was a fabulous setting for Winston as clinking glasses are not allowed into the panelled space - Winston was indeed able to let his final notes ring out and it was that kind of attention to detail that made the evening feel grand.
Winston’s appearance, however, belied his concert performer status. He came out in a workman’s shirt, stocking feet and jeans, and if you were expecting Liberace style moves you might have been disappointed. Comments across the country were mixed on this—but most Midwesterners appreciated that Winston is a humble man whose musicality does not require tux and tails. He is not the quintessential showman, but his elegant playing is well worth the price of admission, and, too, this venue is has always been all about the music and less about the glitter.
A few people wished there had been more “Christmas” music, although I don’t know why. America is absolutely flooded with holiday music in every elevator, department store and restaurant at this time. Can’t we let the man do what he does best even if Santa is climbing down the darn chimney in a week? His repertoire took us through the seasons and more and gave us a glimpse into his current state of mind as well. Bah Humbug!
‘Ballads and Blues’ was Winston’s debut solo piano recording in 1972 (‘Tacoma’). Since 1980, Winston has recorded ten solo albums and is fond of naming these works of art after seasons or transitions into seasons, e.g. ‘Winter into Spring’, 1982. In the late 1990s and then in 2004, he penned ‘Plains’ and ‘Montana - A Love Story’, demonstrating adoration for that state’s natural, understated beauty. But Winston is a multi-instrumentalist, too, who created a solo guitar composition inspired by ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’. Although he ventured into playing the organ in the late 1960s, and was inspired by masters like Booker T. Jones and Jimmy Smith, acoustic piano latched on to his very soul, he has drawn heavily from the likes of the New Orleans contingent, Professor Longhair, Henry Butler and Dr. John, and, although he formerly stated that Laura Nyro, Frank Zappa and Randy Newmanhave lit his fire, his music tonight didn’t reflect those early influences.
He then played ‘Colors/Tamarac Pines’ from ‘Autumn and Forest’. Winston’s style has been referred to as “folk piano” and this piece is a great example. The voicings bring to mind simple pleasures, scents and feelings. He set up the lilting melody and then toyed with it in an austere, primal way. You could certainly envision a folk guitarist interpreting it with the same degree of gentleness and control of dynamics. He referenced minimalist composer, Steve Reich, and the influence also shone through as tonal clusters and tiny patches of melody blossomed and exploded, and as an extra visual bonus his fingers were reflected under the piano’s mirrored lid; ideal for a budding pianist trying to pinch a riff.
Winston also displayed how the piano can be used as a percussive instrument and how call and response is not limited to an ensemble - you could hear the dialogue erupt between his hands clear as day.
‘Moon/Lights In The Sky’, again from ‘Autumn and Forest’, was another beauty, which set the mind adrift. Sandwiched in between these mood pieces was another Guaraldi, ‘Christmas is Coming/Christmas is Here’. It seemed familiar to many of the people present, its rich tones and sweeping chord changes were bittersweet, minor-tinged, delicate and haunting and the boogie and echo of the bass vital to the creation of the mood. At times, it seemed like there was a magical, light flickering over the keys as Winston layered his chords, but always he allowed for breathing room before launching into syncopation.
The last two pieces of the first set deviated from the others. The whimsical ‘Dog and Cat’ was inspired by the American pianists “Fats”Waller, Teddy Wilson and Donald Lambert. He explained about the popular use during the 1920s-1940s of the infectious stride piano style, where the left hand bass notes and chords compete with the right hand for attention. It’s a light, happy, easy-on-the-ears style. Winston alerted us that the left hand was “dog.” This one off charming style could go the way of the player piano if not for artists like Winston keeping it front and centre. And for all those 1970s fans who daydreamed to Winston’s acoustic piano recordings, he pulled a fast one, finishing the first set with ‘Sassy’, a dreamy example of Hawaiianslack key guitar by Leonard Kwan.
After a short break Winston played ‘Prelude/Carol of the Bells/Cloudburst’ ‘(December, Plains’). This pairing had an orchestral effect. Of course, this famous Ukranian art song has been covered many times, but Winston added his own Reichian accents and drew out the inherent loveliness of the drone effect with breathtaking pedal technique and subtlety.
‘Returning/The Cradle’ (Larry Young) from ‘Forest’ was a convincing contrast. Winston delicately dedicated this lullaby to “mothers everywhere.”
Winston’s love of nature and solitude streamed through the composition. ‘Bouquet (More Than You Know)’ is from Winston’s most recent recording, ‘Spring Carousel’, on behalf of a cancer research benefit.
The fluffy-sounding ‘Pixie # 13 in C’ is also a newer piece and part of this project. In contrast, Winston performed ‘Nancy’s Waltz’, a plaintive harmonica piece, and ‘Thanksgiving’, a slow, cerebral think piece.
Possibly the prettiest composition of the night was ‘Building the Snowman/The Snowman’s Music Box Dance’ (Howard Blake) from ‘Forest’, which was suspended by thick, block chords and uplifting melodic lines.
Winston ended the concert with two more surprises: a composition inspired by Jim Morrison, ‘Love Hides’ by the Doors found Winston reaching into the piano and dampening and playing individual strings and ‘Beloved Lullaby’, which he played on guitar as his one encore piece.
Although many of us left, pining away for a piano encore, we’d probably admit that George Winston put on a beautiful, heartwarming performance which will leave most of us in good stead as we plough through the seasons ahead.