You can hear Montana in the piano of Grammy-winner George Winston—the open space, the stillness, the wild scents on the wind. Though several decades removed from his Montana boyhood, Winston still clearly recalls the feel of each of the four seasons up in the north country, and those sense memories continue to animate his compositions and performances. They’ve long since been interwoven with a world of musical and geographical influences—from New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair to Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui, from jazz pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi to The Doors.
Winston’s sensitivity to nature’s cues and his empathic connection to particular musicians have helped him forge an unmistakable sound on the piano that can be at once serene and startling. You can hear it on Sunday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, when AMP Concerts presents Winston in an evening of solo piano and possibly other instruments.
Winston plays in three piano styles: what he calls melodic folk, New Orleans R & B and stride. He started out on organ back in 1967, but it was recordings of the great stride pianists of the ’20s and ’30s that moved him to the piano, where he found the sound he was looking for.
Winston produces deliciously round, shimmering, bell-like tones that make the piano vibrate with pleasure. He manages that with “some pedaling,” he says. “Just let the notes ring out. Just depends on the song and the chords that are played and the piano—yeah, but just trying to get that sustain on the melodic pieces,” Winston explains.
“There are two things I like about the piano: One, it’s a powerful instrument. Then, the other thing, the sound of the sustain is a sound I prefer to strings or organ or synthesizer, or any other sustained sounds.”
That technique is especially evident on his melodic folk recordings, which include seasonal works such as December, Autumn, Winter into Spring and Summer; his celebration of Montana, Plains; and his homage to The Doors, Night Divides the Day.
Other recordings, such as his most recent release, Love Will Come: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol. 2, find him relying more on R & B, stride and boogie-woogie techniques, though that crystalline sound never disappears.
Throughout his career, Winston has focused exclusively on solo performances. He jokes that it may have started in kindergarten when he got sent out in the hallway, but he says, “That’s just how I hear everything in my head—just by myself.”
That doesn’t mean he’s cut off from other musicians or, for that matter, other instruments. He became an aficionado of Hawaiian slack-key guitar after first hearing it the ’70s. “It reminded me of May in Montana,” he says. He plays that genre and others on guitar, and he’s producing an extensive series of recordings featuring slack-key masters on his own label, Dancing Cat Records. He may well offer some guitar selections in concert, and he might also play a tune or two on harmonica, another instrument that’s caught his fancy.
Winston may play alone, but he embraces the wider world as a tireless advocate for the hungry. Every Winston concert supports a local organization that provides food to those in need. In Albuquerque, the Roadrunner Food Bank will collect canned goods at the concert, and 100 percent of concert merchandise sales will be donated to that organization.