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More Than You Thought

George Winston presides over the Wilma’s 80th birthday party


I don’t count myself among the ranks of the most avid George Winston fans, but I’m definitely with the Michigan-born, Montana-raised pianist on one score: Eastern Montana deserves better than it gets, especially from people who have never spent an appreciable period of time there. Yes, yes—I say petulantly—western Montana is nice and all, but the beauty out here is just so obvious. Too may notes. Poor use of negative space. And who’s got all the Superfund sites, anyway?

Eastern Montana, now that’s negative space. Dirt roads that curve down, then out and away, then up to the horizon without a single bend. Silt-brown rivers a mile wide and an inch deep. The night smells of sage and wet gumweed. Crazy Horse country. That’s just as much Montana as the Missions or the Bitterroot; any East Coast kunkhead tries to tell me where the beauty’s at in my own state is gonna hear it from me.

Well, OK—I now say sheepishly—George Winston didn’t put it quite like that. He transposed his formative experiences growing up in Montana—first Miles City and later Billings, and don’t even get me started about Billings—into his most recent recording, Plains, the follow-up to 1994’s companion piece, Forest. Seldom have the eastern plains had such an eloquent musical spokesman as they have in Winston, whose piano sojourn began in Montana in the 1960s and wends its way back through again with a string of benefit concerts across the state.

Winston didn’t begin playing the piano until after he graduated from high school in 1967, when he was first moved to take up the electric keys by the increasingly sophisticated rock of the Doors, Frank Zappa and Blood, Sweat and Tears as well as the electrified sound of jazz organists like Jimmy McGriff. In 1971, after discovering the stride piano of Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, he switched to acoustic almost exclusively. And shortly after that, within just a few years of picking up the instrument, Winston released his first solo album on piano, Ballads and Blues, 1972.

His name didn’t become a household word until 1980, when a brilliant trilogy of albums on the young Windham Hill label, Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December broke him to the first enthusiasts of what would eventually, and rather damningly, come to be known as New Age music. It’s not an appellation Winston cares for especially, nor one that does justice to his palette.

For better or worse, though, the notion of Windham Hill—and Winston in particular—as a boon for people who take their music fireside or planting native bulbs with NPR tinkling in the background is one that has stuck. So much so that when I say “George Winston Dance Party,” you probably think I’m kidding. Dance party? Don’t I just mean “light foot tapping?”

No. The Wilma Theatre is throwing itself an 80th birthday party this weekend, a dress-down affair with everyone invited onstage to trip it to a jauntier selection of tunes. Winston will dip into his bag of jazz and swing standards—including, probably, some of the Vince Guaraldi favorites that first lent jazz color (and some very memorable dancing) to Snoopy and the gang’s Yuletide in the 1966 classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Remember that dancing?

He’s kind of like eastern Montana that way. Always more to him than you thought.

George Winston plays dance tunes this Friday at the Wilma Theatre. Tickets are $10.

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