Winston creates pieces that paint a picture and mood. His album "Autumn," released on the Windham Hill label in 1980, was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
When pianist and composer George Winston creates a piece of music, it usually comes as a surprise.
He explains that he doesn't sit down at his piano with the intention of composing a new piece of music. Rather, he says his main practice is interpreting the work of others and that in doing so his playing occasionally will veer into something new, which might catch his attention and develop into an original piece. Winston's happenstance composition process may come as a surprise to those who are fans. After all, he has composed more than 10 albums of original music recorded by Takoma, Windham Hill, Sony Classical, RCA and Dancing Cat labels.
Known for his innovative and contemplative solo piano compositions, Winston creates pieces that paint a picture and mood. His album "Autumn," released on the Windham Hill label in 1980, was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for selling more than a million copies in the United States. It became the best-selling album of the Windham Hill collection and was quickly followed by two more platinum releases: "Winter Into Spring" (1982) and "December" (1982 - three-time platinum). His next four albums reached gold.
Although Winston said he often plays in smaller cities and towns, he makes his first appearance in Taos on Tuesday (Feb. 5). His 7:30 p.m.concert at the Taos Community Auditorium is presented by AMP Concerts. It is a rare opportunity to hear this living American legend.
Winston said in the early days he was sometimes mischaracterized as a classical pianist. He is quick to point out that his musical foundation is grounded firmly in the soil of North America, and does not come from the European classical tradition. Winston also says he is sometimes mislabeled as a jazz player, which he is not. Rather, he says his playing has roots in the rich rhythm and blues tradition of African-American music.
On his website (georgewinston.com), Winston says he plays piano in three styles: R&B piano, stride piano and folk piano. He said his R&B playing is inspired by the "great New Orleans R&B pianists from the late 1940s onward," notably Henry Butler, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Jon Cleary. According to Winston, 90 percent of what he plays on the piano is in the R&B style. Stride piano was his main focus in the early 1970s, but he only plays a few songs in the style now. Folk piano, or rural folk piano, is the term Winston uses to describe the melodic style he came up with in 1971. This is the style featured in the majority of his recordings, which he describes as "rural in nature, rather than urban." He estimates that this style makes up about 10 percent of all the songs he plays on the piano.
For his Taos show, Winston said he will play what he calls his "Winter Show." It includes pieces he regards as songs for autumn and winter, including some of his compositions from his "Winter Into Spring" and "December" recordings. He will also play some Vince Guaraldi (who composed the music for the "Peanuts" animated TV specials), R&B songs and new works. In addition, Winston will play a few numbers on his guitar and harmonica.
Winston said he always has an image in his mind when he plays a piece of music.
"If I'm interpreting a song or I compose a song by happenstance I always have a picture in my mind of a season and a place. I guess if I were a painter I would be painting the scene. The seasons were so extremely distinct in eastern Montana and that's how I grew up … it comes natural."
Asked if the image is static or moving, Winston responded, "It's kind of like looking out a window. It's not totally static. It's like looking out a window in a rural setting."
Winston's happenstance composition process is matched by his nonchalant attitude about composing.
"I never compose on purpose, at all," said Winston. "It's just something that happens once in a while. Something just emerges out of thin air, or the subconscious, and some things stay around and some things evaporate. It's OK either way. It happens if and when it happens. Tons of people compose on purpose. I don't have that kind of temperament. I'm always working on New Orleans pieces or Vince Guaraldi's pieces, or pieces by The Doors, and my main practice is interpretation of pieces by others but there's something that comes through every so often."
Winston's most recent recording of compositions is called "Spring Carousel: A Cancer Benefit," and was released on RCA Records in 2017. It was composed while he was being treated for cancer at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Winston said the pieces would not have come about if it had not been for City of Hope. The cancer hospital and research center provided him with both treatment and access to a piano in their auditorium. It was on their piano that Winton composed 59 pieces of music during that time period. Fifteen of those pieces were recorded for "Spring Carousel."
"Spring Carousel" is the fourth in a series of benefit CDs that Winston has made over the course of his career. He said it's a benefit for City of Hope "because it wouldn't have happened without their treatment and their piano."
"Remembrance" is a benefit CD for the loved ones of those lost in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as others affected by the tragedy. Proceeds from "Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit" help relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. "Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions 2: A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit" supports efforts to protect and restore Louisiana wetlands and clean up the Gulf Coast oil spill.
In addition to his four benefit CDs, "Silent Night" is a benefit single for Feeding America that Winston released in December 2013. All proceeds go to the nationwide network of food banks.
Since 1986, Winston has collected food for local food banks at all of his concerts. "It's just a way of trying to interact with the community in addition to the music," he says. "The local food bank also gets proceeds from CDs sold at the shows. There are all these people in need, and the food banks everywhere are doing a great job," said Winston.
Tickets are $39 in advance, $43 day of the show (including all service charges) and can be purchased at tickets.holdmyticket.com/tickets/321347?tc=hmt or by phone through HoldMyTicket at (505) 886-1251.
Concertgoers are invited to bring a donation of nonperishable food to the concert for distribution through St. James Episcopal Church. There will be collection baskets at the entrances. The Taos Community Auditorium is located at 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For more information, call (575) 758-4677 or visit tcataos.org. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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