Since becoming widely known in the 1980s for his season-themed suites, George Winston has always been associated with the piano. It remains his primary instrument, evident from the full-size Steinway grand that took up most of the stage at One World Theatre Wednesday in the first show of a two-night stand at the unique west Austin venue.
For some, though, it was a surprise when he ended the first set by switching to guitar. Winston is specifically drawn to slack key, a Hawaiian style that involves open-tuning the strings more loosely than usual. Winston credited slack key pioneer Leonard Kwan specifically for his influence before launching into a thoroughly enjoyable tune called “Sassy.”
More evidence of Winston’s range was found between sets at the merchandise table, which was manned by a representative of the Capital Area Food Bank in accordance with Winston’s gracious donation of all his merch proceeds to a local charity at each of his tour stops. We picked up a recent collection titled “Harmonica Solos,” not being previously aware that Winston also played harmonica.
As for his piano playing, Winston remains a master of both tone and invention. Starting with a bluesy tune inspired by Professor Longhair — Winston’s most recent albums have included two Gulf Coast-inspired collections — he proceeded through seasonal favorites “Rain” (from 1982’s “Winter Into Spring”) and “Woods” (from 1980’s “Autumn”). On the latter, he created remarkable “hollowed” sounds to some notes by reaching inside the piano and muting strings with one hand while striking keys with the other.
He also paid tribute to the great Vince Guaraldi, legendary for his “Peanuts” theme music, with a medley of “Air Music” and “Rain Rain Go Away,” both of which are included on Winston’s 2010 second volume of Guaraldi tunes. It’s easy to see why Guaraldi was such a good fit for Charles Schulz’s comic characters, as Winston’s empathetic playing brought out the playful-yet-wistful spirit of the compositions.
Conflicting obligations kept us from staying for the second set, but even an hour of George Winston was time well spent at one of Austin’s most creatively designed listening spaces. (No photos were allowed during the performance, thus the shot included here of just Winston’s piano a few minutes before the show.)