A deceptive stoicism surrounds the performance music of pianist George Winston. Last night at Berea College’s Phelps Stokes Chapel, he resembled an aging hippie professor – balding, bespectacled and informally attired right to down the stocking feet he played the piano pedals with (resulting in some often stunning examples of melodic sustain, we might add).
Before each selection, he offered a brief, informative discourse on the tune’s composer, his choice of inspirations and even the performance style he employed to propel the music. The latter invariably included an element of New Orleans stride piano where rhythm and melody are played by separate hands simultaneously.
Not surprisingly, there was a kind of bookish presentation to all of this. Winston, known initially for the accessibly impressionistic solo piano recordings he released for the Windham Hill label (especially ones he cut in the early ‘80s) came across as a retiring and unassuming presence onstage – the sort of polite concert artist that could be counted on to not impose himself too severely on an audience.
But when the introductory chat ceased and Winston set his hands in motion to tear up the keys with the bright barrelhouse bounce of Professor Longhair’s New Orleans Shall Rise Again, you saw how misleading appearances could be. Winston may be a scholarly clinician in how he approaches another composer’s works. But when the words stop and the music plays, he can be a soulful terror as an instrumentalist.
Granted, there were several instances last night where the more tranquil aspects of his music were spotlighted, as on the autumnal original Woods or his popular, wintry variation on Pachelbel’s Canon. Both were curious entries, perhaps, given that Winston termed the Berea concert as a “Summer” themed program. But there were also curve balls, as when the Windham Hill-friendly passages of Rain opened up with Steve Reich-style minimalism or when a show closing adaptation of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm revealed the same stride piano split performance thinking that drove an earlier version of the James Booker-inspired Pixie No. 3.
Add in jazz explorations of great variance (Vince Guaraldi’s sunny theme to It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown and Art Lande’s more pastoral Fragrant Fields), along with works for solo guitar (Leonard Kwan’s Hawaiian slack key meditation New ‘Ophi Moemoe) and even some Appalachian flavored solo harmonica and you had a musical seminar that went beyond the piano and way beyond any audience’s broadest expectations.