George Winston Climbs Aboard his Carousel

New Age. Most of it was acoustic. While there were vocals here and there, much of it featured instrumentalists playing solo or in groups. Some of it was meant to alleviate stress. Some of it was marginally connected to a similarly named movement in spirituality. Environmentalism and respect for nature were constant themes. Some New Age artists created moody, ambient sounds that were intended as background music, to promote healing and relaxation.

As the genre grew, some might say by attracting marginally talented musicians who were searching for musical direction, record labels specializing in New Age, such as Windham Hill, Narada, and Private Music, appeared on the scene and made stars of such diverse musical talents as harpist Andreas Vollenweider, native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, saxophonist Paul Winter, keyboardist Kitaro, and guitarist Michael Hedges. Hedges, a huge talent, memorably called his music "Heavy Mental." In its heyday, New Age sold a lot of records, some of them well-recorded and aimed at the audiophile market. The Wikipedia entry for New Age may have caught the essence of the music best: "intended to promote serenity."

For a couple of years in the early 1980s, no one was bigger in the touchy-feely, sometimes sleepy, sometimes downright boring musical world of New Age than pianist George Winston. The eastern Montana native's string of hit albums in that decadeAutumn (1980), Winter into Spring (1982), and December (1982)—all ranked high on the New Age charts, and even climbed into the top 20 of the Billboard U.S. Jazz charts. Depending on who's doing the judging, each is filled with pleasantly meandering solo-piano explorations that Winston has always referred to as "folk piano."


"First, they called it classical, but I've never played any classical, I can't be classical," Winston told me over the phone from California. "Then they called it New Age. I kept saying, 'folk piano with a lot of New Orleans influence and stride from Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. It's not meditation stuff.'"

Although playing New Age piano is where Winston won his fame, his was the most recognizable face of a genre that, in the 1990s, began declining in popularity and sales. As New Age waned, Winston, its biggest star, branched out, cutting a tribute to the Doors, a much-praised children's album, and even an album of harmonica solos, all on his Dancing Cat label. You quickly find out when talking to him that the pianist is quite the cat person.

Like most artists today, Winston has survived the years since by touring. It was on one of those tours, in Sand Point, Idaho, that he became very ill during a show and ended up in a local emergency room. Diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), he was transferred to City of Hope Hospital, in Duarte, California, where he underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Winston had previously survived bouts with thyroid and skin cancer. Having been through serious illnesses before, did he have any inkling he was getting sick?

"I had an idea—my platelets were low, but not that low. They went lower very quickly." But the marrow transplant was not the ordeal he feared it might be. "It's a lot easier than it used to be. It's not surgery. It's injecting bone-marrow fluid. It's not like having an organ transplant, which I imagine is amazingly hard. Everything is getting easier and easier with the times, both in regular and alternative medicine. They're finding out more in a week than they used to in a year."

In the auditorium at City of Hope there was a piano, and while recovering, Winston began to noodle on it. Soon enough, these noodlings became rough piano pieces that he began to polish. Later, in a studio, he recorded 59 different pieces that he'd composed, mostly in his head, at City of Hope. From those he chose 15 for his new album, Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit. He plans to donate the proceeds from sales of the album to the hospital that saved his life.


"I was just practicing, and a bunch of songs just kind of happened. And I realized that these 15 kind of came together to make the statements I wanted to make. At the same time, I realized that this should be a benefit for the City of Hope. They're a research facility as well as a hospital, and they're nonprofit. It wouldn't have happened without them, both the treatment and the piano, so it obviously goes back to them."

Which, for anyone who's ever heard Winston's music, leads to the most obvious question: Are his solo-piano pieces mostly composed? Or are they constantly changing improvisations built around a certain recurring set of chords?

"I'm not a composer by temperament—things just happen here and there, just serendipitously or spontaneously, and I write down the chords. Some of them stay around and some don't. On Spring Carousel there were three different kinds of songs. There were carousels, which are kind of swirling, like the location of planets, high on the piano—sometimes kind of repetitive, circular-type pieces, sometimes influenced by Steve Reich. And then the second kind are bouquets—those are ballads. The third type, that I call Ms. Mysteries, are up-tempo pieces."

Of the 20 carousels Winston composed at City of Hope, half made it onto the record. Of the six Ms. Mysteries, he selected three for the album; of ten bouquets, two. "At first I thought about a double CD, one called Carousel and one called Spring. But I realized it was only 15 that hung together, and so combined the two titles.

"Each one's like a cat," Winston said. "They're all different, and the relationship with each piece is different and completely unique. Nothing's completely set. Some things are variations; like, something is an Irish tune, and pretty much the variations are grace notes—subtle variations, you're not taking a completely improvised jazz solo. Other songs have a space . . . like, okay, here's a space for an improvised solo. It all depends on the song. Live, if they don't keep changing and growing, I wind up not playing them anymore. It's kind of part of the process. Some things are only for recording. Sometimes I record something and I never play it again. In a way, how do I know when to record piece? Because, really, they're never done."


dalethorn's picture

There was a nifty little store on State St. in Santa Barbara that we shopped at in the 90's through 2004, that had a lot of gift items and a good selection of new-age CDs. I bought some of those CDs - Kim Robertson, Suzanne Ciani, Sheila Chandra, etc. So I tried sampling George Winston on the several albums they listed on iTunes. I tried to find something that didn't seem gimmicky, and could not. Maybe I didn't try hard enough. One artist I found only 6 decent music tracks by, after sampling a large catalog of tracks, was Mantovani. I have just those 6 tracks, and they're quite good with minimal "sweeping strings". But I didn't find anything by Winston unfortunately.

badboy07's picture

I first encountered George Winston sort of by mistake. During a high school era visit to a Best Buy to kill some time, I saw an endcap in the then prodigious music department featuring George Winston's latest release, "Linus & Lucy, The Music of Vince Guaraldi." Being ignorant of both artists, I bought the CD on a whim and have been a fan of both ever since.