Season’s greetings

Pianist George Winston's music changes with the weather

Cory O'Brien | Boulder Weekly

Growing up in rural Montana, pianist George Winston didn’t have a lot of entertainment options.

“We didn’t have any TV stations growing up,” Winston says.

“And we only had one radio station. The seasons were our entertainment — playing in the leaves in the fall, sledding in winter, baseball in the spring.”

Out of that early isolation, Winston crafted a musical style that evokes Eastern Montana at every turn. From the stark, plaintive beauty of winter on the frigid plains to the bouncy jubilance of the first spring thaw, Winston’s compositions are deeply rooted in the rustic landscape of his childhood.

Even today, Winston is most commonly known for his early records dedicated to the seasons. Autumn (1980), Winter Into Spring (1982), December (1982) and Summer (1991) were love letters not just to the seasons but to the landscape that made the seasons such an integral part of Winston’s development. In a land of such extremes, everything, even music, can be easily described by what season it resembles most.

“Even when I was a boy, I would hear a song on the radio and say, ‘Oh, that’s an autumn song,’ or ‘That’s a spring song,’” Winston says. “I never knew what genre anything was supposed to be. I think genres are imaginary. It’s an arbitrary nick-name of songs that sound remotely like each other. To me, a song always sounded like itself.”

The seasons weren’t the only form of entertainment for young George Winston — he also had his record collection. He is no longer content to just listen to the records, however. In order to fully appreciate an album, he says he now has to play it himself, and try to make it work with his voice.

“When I was a kid, when I would get into something I would need to get the record,” Winston says. “But now, I need to play it. Of course, I’ll own the record too, but to really get the music, I need to play it on the piano. It’s kind of the next level of being into a record for me, is playing it myself. Sometimes I’ll fail, but even then I learn something from trying to play it.”

This approach to music has left Winston with an incredible catalog of songs to pull from. Winston grew up listening almost exclusively to instrumentals and cut his teeth playing songs by jazz pianists such as Fats Waller and Jimmy Smith. But his need to be an active participant in the music he loves has led him to record songs by artists as diverse as Pete Seeger, Sarah McLachlan, Randy Newman and Johann Pachelbel.

That doesn’t even mention the three albums Winston recorded dedicated entirely to another artist’s catalog: Linus and Lucy (1996) and Love Will Come (2010), both of which celebrated the music of Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi, and the 2002 album Night Divides the Day — The Music of The Doors.

The marriage between Winston’s playing and Guaraldi’s music makes perfect sense. In the ’60s, while other teens were getting swept up in the British Invasion, Winston was falling for the sweet, bouncy, piano-driven jazz standards written by Guaraldi. These songs dripped with the same nostalgia and melancholic optimism as the Peanuts cartoons — they were simultaneously quirky and sad and uplifting. Winston absorbed Guaraldi’s quirks, his sadness and, most importantly, his optimism into his own music, so that when Winston sits down to play Guaraldi, it sounds like two old friends reunited.

Re-imagining the music of The Doors, however, proved to be a little more troublesome.

“Sometimes you just have to change it,” Winston says of trying to make a Doors song fit with his style, “because when The Doors played a song, it always sounded like The Doors. … I feel like each song has its essence. I can keep the essence, but sometimes I have to make up an intro or slow it down or change a key, or sometimes it just plain doesn’t work.”

Night Divides the Day finds Winston pushing himself into darker territories. When Winston plays Guaraldi, it sounds like the light, airy sadness of the dying days of summer. When he plays The Doors, it’s with the impending doom of a brutal December storm.

With Winston, it always comes back to the seasons. Other artists may tour in the winter, but Winston has a Winter Tour, one that is very different from his Summer Tour or his Spring Tour. He carefully chooses a set list that matches the unique mood that accompanies each season. When it comes down to it, Winston is still the same Montana kid at heart — driven by the seasons, lost in his record collection, a solitary man politely pounding at the keys of his obsessions.