Kate Koenig, Arts Editor
George Winston, 62, has been a favorite for generations in some households, and may be a relative unknown for others. A solo pianist originally from Montana, he’s inspired by New Orleans R & B, but also dabbles in stride as well as anything else that may interest him, writing originals and covering the songs of musicians he admires. A Grammy Award-winning pianist and multi-platinum selling recording artist, he has 12 solo piano albums behind him, and has recorded several soundtracks, in which he has worked with actress Meryl Streep and the producers of the “Peanuts” animated series. Last Wednesday, March 7 at Foothills Performing Arts Center, Winston treated Oneonta to full concert with just him and the piano (and a bit of guitar and harmonica thrown in).
The stage of Foothills’ 750-capacity room was set up with a Yamaha CFIIIS, placed just off center so that Winston, when seated on the bench, was more in the direct spotlight. The $120,000, nine-foot-long concert grand piano had the lid fully opened, and the only microphone used was the one positioned between the piano bench and the audience, for Winston to speak into. It’s unusual for an acoustic piano to not be amplified through the sound system in a room that large, but the setup was of Winston’s discretion, as he is concerned more about the interaction between the natural resonance of the piano in the space.
He opened the set with an original tune entitled “New Orleans Shall Rise Again #4 in F,” which was inspired by New Orleans blues singer and pianist Professor Longhair, a musician whose work Winston says he’s studied for 33 years and is “just now coming to terms with.” The first few pieces of the program were associated with different seasons, as he would reveal to the audience in brief introductions before each was performed. One of which was a medley of compositions by pianist Vince Guaraldi (known for composing the soundtracks to the first 16 “Peanuts” animations) who Winston frequently cites as a main influence and inspiration.
Winston grew up in Miles City, Montana, and for the first 12 years of his life, did not have much of an exposure to or interest in music. “Everything was about the seasons,” he says. “Rake leaves in the fall, sled in the winter, go swimming and play baseball in the summer.” At age 12, he began listening to music and started taking a serious interest, and six years later when he heard The Doors, he was driven to buy an electric organ and get involved in performing. After half a decade of playing the organ, R & B pianists Thomas “Fats” Waller and Teddy Wilson influenced him into switching over to the acoustic piano and instrumental R & B rather than instrumental rock. Before music, though, everything was about the seasons. Winston sees no real separation between these periods in his life, believing that what you do and what you create are intertwined, as the time he spent with nature in the West is what he claims to be the reason why he plays.
Mainly self-taught — he had a few jazz lessons when he started playing — Winston has always been drawn to instrumental music. Born with perfect pitch, the ability to identify or re-create a given musical note, he pays attention to the chords of a song more than anything else, saying he doesn’t hear melody or words. He finds melodies difficult to memorize, and as for lyrics, “The words could be sung in a foreign language and it wouldn’t make a difference to me,” he says, adding that the lyrics of The Doors are the only ones that ever made a real impression on him.
From observing Winston’s performance style, it’s easy to see the experience and knowledge in his fingertips. Pianists with years of practice behind them tend to develop their own unique way of moving their hands across the keys; Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers had a comical way of “shooting” individual notes with his index finger, Duke Ellington often would hop off the keys or shape his hands to them — the genre being played is also an aspect of this, as David Barenboim performing an up-tempo movement from a Beethoven sonata automatically yields more strenuous hand-muscle action. Like his fellow greats, Winston has his own movements, pulling away from notes very gradually, with an overarching sense of calm. He carries each chord and melody with great care, focusing on the tones he’s creating. “Showing off” is not in his vocabulary. In respect to the idea of displaying fancy technique in his performances, he says: “That’s more for sports. …If someone [sees me play and] says ‘That’s amazing!’, I’d probably take notes out of the song. If I was a painter, I wouldn’t use every color [available to me.]” This sentiment follows the way he presents himself on stage, wearing jeans, flannel, stocking feet (to prevent the unwanted “foot noise”) and with his hair longish and slightly unkempt.
Winston’s playing is also unique in that he often chooses to manipulate the tones created by placing his hand on the piano strings. Using his left hand to palm-mute the strings or subtly adjust the vibration while playing notes with his right hand, he created various effects during the concert, from abruptly cutting off the resonance of a note or producing more wooden sounds with the hammers, to at one point making what sounded like a synthesized delay effect on the melody being played. These techniques were used on some of the more impressionistic pieces Winston performed, while the R & B and stride pieces performed were mostly played more traditionally.
Winston played two sets, which included one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece and an Appalachian folk song on harmonica in addition to the range of solo piano styles. The show was closed with an original, named “The Gulf Shall Live Again #1 in E Flat,” a piece from his latest solo piano album “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2 — A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit.” All of the artist royalties for this album (to be released on March 20, 2012) will be donated to organizations that are working to help Louisiana in its ongoing recovery from the 2010 oil spill. His philanthropic efforts also benefited Oneonta for this particular show, as the local Salvation Army conducted a food drive at the event and proceeds from CD sales made that night were contributed to the cause.
For more info on George Winston, visit www.georgewinston.com or his Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/GeorgeWinstonPiano.