Traffic is always a challenge in south Florida, especially when you’re running late and trying to make a concert. Recently, after weaving the back streets and skillfully navigating the real-time solid red, then orange, and finally blue traffic grid up the I-95 corridor from Miami, blasting through a sudden 2-minute downpour and dodging the road construction on Broward Boulevard, I planted my derriere at The Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater just as the lights dimmed and an older gent wearing a simple button down shirt over a pair of dark gray jeans and thick winter-like socks walked out on stage. Ah…Calm at last!
It was George Winston, with his acoustic guitar and harmonica in tow, taking his seat at the Steinway grand piano, on a tour stop that came to the Amaturo Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 27, and then had Winston heading to Key West for a show on March 2, and continuing on with a full calendar through June 2018.
Thick winter-like socks? Winston says he plays in stocking feet to quiet his "hard beat pounding" left foot. It’s all part of the big unconventional musical picture he creates.
Winston plays the foot pedals on his Steinway as if he was riding them, reaches inside the piano with his left hand to mute the strings while hammering keys with the right, points the tips of his fingers upward in order to strike the keys with the pads of his hands, and spends a great deal of time tickling the ivories at their highest register, creating expansive soundscapes and a truly unique experience for the listener.
Winston pulls from rock, pop, jazz, folk and new age to create what he calls “rural folk piano.” He also employs stylings that include stride piano, New Orleans R&B, and Hawaiian slack-key guitar.
A lifelong devotee of Vince Guaraldi’s music, one could say the legendary pianist’s spirit inhabited Winston shortly after Guaraldi died suddenly in 1976 at age 47. Winston, cottoning to Guaraldi’s “melodies, chord progressions and voicings," has produced two tribute albums and has performed many “Peanuts” songs that Guaraldi never released, keeping the contemporary jazzer’s spirit and music alive.
Kudos must go out to this Fort Lauderdale audience, true listeners, who waited for the final chords of Guaraldi’s bouncy “Skating” to fully decay before applauding. Winston thanked the crowd for “allowing the song to end.”
He played a pleasant three-song medley from his Guaraldi inspired “Love Will Come” album, including the sweet “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown.” The calming effect of the mix on the hall was palpable.
A genial fellow, Winston pivoted on his piano bench to address the audience with brief intros to many of the tunes he played.
"Colors / Dance" and “Moon” from his “Autumn” album were fine examples of his “folk piano.” “Colors,” with its laid-back tempo and mellow phrasing and “Moon” with layered tempos indicating a lovely stroll as well as the sound of a balalaika playing, resonated with the capacity crowd.
With “Tamarack Pines,” Winston took us inside the workings of a Swiss watch, his right hand tingling, tinkering, all the gears moving on the inspired top side of the keyboard whilst reaching inside the piano to muffle the strings. He dedicated “The Cradle” to all the mothers in the audience, a fluid melody laced with simple runs. With “Building the Snowman,” a brief reminder of childlike innocence, back-to-back with “The Snowman's Music Box Dance,” Winston exploited the highest keys to lovely effect.
“Thanksgiving” from the “December” album was classic Winston, himself in a semi-trance-like state as he beautifully rendered this study in inner peace and internal harmony.
It certainly seemed as if he had 20 fingers all firing at once with the hypnotic line from “Carol of the Bells,” which he seamlessly merged with the spellbinding “Cloud Burst,” creating a ‘breeze’ before single heavy drops of rain landed, followed by a cleansing sprinkle.
No doubt that the environs of Montana, where Winston spent his formidable years, significantly informed much of his original musical tone and invention. He was intimately connected to the piano keys at all times– always in the zone.
The influences of stride pianists Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson were evinced with a revved-up ostinato bass line and distinct melody up top. The coordinated yet independent renderings of his left and right hands were nowhere more evident than in the uptempo “Chase,” the title implying exactly what one hand was doing to the other.
Another style Winston carries in his tool kit is New Orleans R&B piano, inspired by the likes of James Booker and Professor Longhair. With a precise left hand and rolling right, he grooved on “Pixie #13,” one smooth R&B tune that captured the distinct subtle side of the genre.
Delightful was a solo harmonica ballad, his Hohner sounding every bit a concertina.
Interestingly, Winston’s Martin guitar has a low 7th string added to help boost the slack-key sound (detuning or "slacking" the guitar strings until the six conventional strings form a single chord). He craftily played “Kane’s Tune,” a buoyant Hawaiian melody, the soothing sense of “aloha” draining any residual stress from members of the audience who, like me, might have brought in some big-city stress at the top of show.
With all the high drama in Washington and shenanigans seemingly swirling around us daily, it can be hard to find a respite these days. Winston as the mellow musical alchemist was the perfect antidote.