George Winston

Ballads and Blues 1972 [Bonus Tracks] [Digipak]

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Once upon a time pianist and composer George Winston (famous for his "seasons" new age recordings) was a blues and stride pianist who dug deep into the historical American repertoire and did his own take on it and made it his own. The evidence is here on this 1972 album, originally issued on John Fahey's Takoma label and titled simply: Piano Solos. To be fair, in 2006, Winston revisited his blues and boogie roots with records like Gulf Coast Blues Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit. That this reissue appears just a month later than that one says something about the pianist's change in direction -- perhaps. Ballads and Blues is notable because it reveals the influences that Fahey's guitar playing, along with the playing of pianists Roy Byrd (Professor Longhair), James Booker, and Fats Waller had on him. Those who have heard his Windham Hill recordings and simply state Keith Jarrett as his primary influence are mistaken, or perhaps just plain lazy. In any case, the music found here is like Fahey's guitartistry, full of primitive notions, plain-speak, and mutation from one form into another. Winston can play it straight and only chooses to do so part of the time. The "Deland Florida Medley" which comprises the first four tracks on this set are ample evidence. They begin with "Highway Hymn Blues," a three-minute stride tune that takes not only the minimalist notions of early stride, but its expansion from the influence of Jelly Roll Morton, Albert Ammons, and Meade "Lux" Lewis. The music is never overly busy, but is very self-contained. As this somewhat raucous and rowdy piece closes "Song," a ballad, is caressed from the keyboard. This almost bleeds into "Go 'Way From My Window," a traditional tune that offers the piano as an instrument almost tinny from antiquity. It offers notions of longing and memory. But it's the "Woods of East Deland" that captures Winston at his most adventurous, where he blends the feelings of the ballads and some of his stride work into a gorgeous mid-tempo pastorale that captures not only the previous emotions, but the willingness to move and to shift, and elements of stride and blues enter almost whimsically. By its end it's a joyous tune that could almost be a hymn. albeit sung in a barroom, not in a church. Winston covers Fahey's guitar arrangement of "Brenda's Blues" next, complete with repetition and mantra-like focus. The recording goes on, shifting in and out of rural reflection and night-life wonder-check "New Hope Blues," inspired by Fats Waller and Blind Blake, for an example, weaves a sparse but driving aural tapestry of near-Gothic Americana. The Legacy/BMG edition also contains a whopping five bonus tracks; three of them are live performances of tunes that Winston considered for this recording, and two are demos. The most fascinating is a cover of Bo Diddley's and Willie Cobbs' "You Don't Love Me," recorded on a cheap tape recorder. The pristine sound of Winston's piano is absent here as the tape wobbles around. It's dirty and tight; there's grease in the keys on this one. In sum, Ballads and Blues 1972 is more than curio: it's a tough and lean recording from an artist who may have made a considerable fortune from his new age records, but is steeped in the blues and ragtime tradition of old. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi