George Winston, the The celebrated solo pianist who sold more than 15 million albums over the course of his career passed away on Sunday, June 4. He turned 73.
Winston’s death was confirmed on his website. He had been battling cancer for 10 years and had a bone marrow transplant in 2013.
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Winston rose to fame in the early 1980s with a trio of records, Fall, winter to springAnd Decemberall of which were platinum in the United States (December even went triple platinum). His music seemed to contain elements of classical, jazz, folk, ambient and New Age music, but as Winston put it in a Q&A for his website, he always referred to his “melodic playing style” as “Folk Piano” or “Rural Folk’. Piano.”
“It’s melodic and uncomplicated in its approach, like folk guitar picking and folk songs, and has a country sensibility,” he said, adding, “All the other labels, including anything that has to do with anything philosophical, or spiritual, or whatever also.beliefs, are also not correct, as I have no interest in those topics.I just play the songs as best I can, inspired by the seasons and the topographies and regions, and occasionally by sociological elements, and try to improve as a player over time.
After those three blockbuster albums, Winston teamed up with actress Meryl Streep for a special LP, The Velvet Rabbit, where his piano was accompanied by the actress reciting Margery Williams’ classic children’s story of the same name. In 1988, Winston provided the music for This is America, Charlie Brownan eight-part miniseries on American history with that of Charles M. Schulz Peanuts characters. And in 1994 he won the Grammy for Best New Age Album for his LP, Forest.
Throughout his career, Winston has found ways to push the boundaries of his game. While two albums with the music of original Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi may have been a smart, straightforward choice for a star of solo piano, Winston also released a full-length album in tribute to The Doors, The night divides the dayin 2002. His 2004 album, Montana: a love story, including interpretations of Frank Zappa and Sam Cooke songs; 2019 Restless wind featured versions of songs by George Gershwin and Stephen Stills.
Winston also often used his music to promote charitable causes, releasing albums that benefited cancer research, conservation of the Louisiana Wetlands, and the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to all of his solo piano work, he released solo harmonica and acoustic guitar albums, and ran his own label, Dancing Cat Records, releasing a wealth of albums by Hawaiian slack-key guitarists.
Winston continued to write and record even as his health declined, releasing what would become his final album, Night, in May 2022. As always, Winston’s versatility and myriad influences were on display as he performed songs by Allen Toussaint, Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro.
Just as his success was unique, Winston’s influence flourished in a wholly unique way. If Rolling stone reported a few years ago, solo piano music has had a quiet boom in the streaming era, with people seeking soothing instrumental music for various reasons. As one pianist, Matthew Mayer, put it, ‘I’m kind of looking at [Winston] as the godfather of it all.”
Another pianist, David Nevue, added: “He was the first popular enough to get his music into the culture for a 17-year-old kid to hear and be inspired. It was peaceful, it was meditative, all melody driven – these were songs with verses and choruses and bridges; it wasn’t these big, epic sonatas. I can’t play Rachmaninoff, I never will. But George Winston, that’s how I can play.”
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