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  • Jonathan Widran

GEORGE WINSTON at The Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts

A national treasure and iconic figure on multiple levels, musical and otherwise, George Winston has for the past 40 years blessed millions of fans with his far reaching ivory creativity while sharing the possibilities of what can happen when a single artist – inspired by muses far and wide, from numerous and surprising disciplines – pushes and transcends the limits of solo instrumental piano.

While his official discography begins with 1972’s independently released Piano Solos (later re-issued as Ballads and Blues 1972, Winston’s legend will always be associated with the rise and success of new age powerhouse Windham Hill Records throughout the 80s and 90s. During this era, starting with the release of Autumn in 1980 and including his trademark 1982 classic December, Winston scored a total of three platinum and four gold albums – an unheard-of figure for an instrumental artist.

The fact that he’s been on such a major national tour throughout 2019 and into the current year is something of a miracle in itself. His 14th album Spring Carousel, released in 2017, contains 15 of the 59 songs the celebrated composer, pianist and master song interpreter wrote while recovering from a 2013 bone marrow transplant at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. The collection, which he followed with 2019’s equally versatile and magnetic Restless Wind, chronicles the time Winston spent healing in the months following a dramatic turn of events which led to a diagnosis of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), which affects blood-cell production in bone marrow. Proceeds from the sale of Spring Carousel were earmarked to benefit cancer research at City of Hope.

Beyond the eyepopping amazement of watching Winston on several occasions reach into the Steinway at center stage and use the actual strings to achieve precise sonic details and effects, the other grand takeaway from his January 25 Winter Show at Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts (at Whittier College) was having the opportunity to experience a showcase of the many shades and colors of his deeper artistry.

With customary humility and engaging anecdotes leading the way, he presented an alternately sparse and eloquent, then rhythmically spirited celebration of his love for all types of music – from stride piano and classic R&B to rock, pop/jazz and film music. The overriding effect was the realization that there’s essentially nothing he can’t do when he pairs those anointed fingers with his vivid imagination. Perhaps most interesting of all, Winston didn’t limit his consciousness shifting magic to the keyboard. Several of his most engaging moments happened when he picked up the Hawaiian slack key guitar and showed equal exquisite mastery on a piece entitled “Kuuipo Ona Ona” and later, another guitar for a thoughtful romantic stroll though “You Send Me,” by one of his great early influences, Sam Cooke. It was also a pleasure during his second set hearing another piece “Kai Forest,” played on harmonica.

Many of Winston’s early numbers were presented as medleys. He artfully bookended a medley of his eloquent yet spirited adventures “Colors” and “Tamarac Pines” with a sweeping run of his lighthearted, slightly improvisational twists on familiar Vince Guaraldi classics (including “Skating,” “Linus & Lucy,” “Graveyard Theme” and “The Great Pumpkin Waltz”). He then returned to his albums Autumn and Forest (representing his early and middle periods) for a rousing, rhythmically eclectic mix of “Moon” and “Lights in the Sky.” Another highlight from his first set was his previously unrecorded “Dog & Cat,” a buoyant stride piano piece inspired by Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Donald Lambert.

In conjunction with the Winter Show theme, it was delightful to hear him launch the second set with his evergreen arrangement of December’s “Prelude/Carol of the Bells” with the sparkling dance “Cloudburst” (from Plains). He tapped into his passion for film music with John Barry’s soft-spoken “Troubadour” (from “Goldfinger”), introduced his love of classic R&B via a poignant arrangement of Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (from Restless Wind), then shared a glimpse of the other great passion of his life, cats, on a hypnotic, swirling gem from Spring Carousel called “Pixie #13 in C (Gobajie – A Foggy Day). The second set included another familiar reflective piece (“Thanksgiving”), high register dominated glimpses of his “The Snowman” suite from Forest and another ode to the melodic Guaraldi genius, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

As wondrous as the varied musical presentation was, the impressions that will linger longest are connected to how personally and intimately he engaged his fans lucky enough to be part of the post-show meet and greet. He stayed for almost an hour, answering questions, signing autographs, posing for selfies, looking at phone photos, talking about his wide range of musical influences, encouraging a fellow pianist and connecting deeply with others about his love for and universal philosophies related to felines.

He spoke particularly of his special affection for two cats who impacted his life most, Goobajie and Gobajie; he referenced the latter in the song he performed with her name in the subtitle, and claims he feels her in his right hand when he plays. Perhaps that’s where the sense of intelligence, wit, whimsy and sly cool in his music originates. He doesn’t call his independent record label Dancing Cat for nothing.

Listen to George Winston's new album Restless Wind here:

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