The album that established the genre came from an unlikely place. The 25th release on the Windham Hill label—designed in 1976 in the mold of ECM Records, with its stark instrumental content matched by equally stark artwork—was the third album by so-called “folk pianist” George Winston. A balding, bearded man who dressed for his concerts in turtlenecks and corduroys, playing the piano in his stocking feet, his music was inspired equally by his environment as the instrumental music that used to be a part of Top 40 radio. The story goes that he was originally signed to Windham Hill to record an acoustic guitar album, but once label owner William Ackerman heard him playing the piano “for fun”, that plan went out the window. Autumn was Winston’s debut, featuring lengthy improvisations on fall themes, followed by Winter Into Spring, a more challenging distillation of those seasons.
December takes the best elements of both albums and presents them as a wonderful evocation of snowy landscapes and nights dotted by tiny lights of many colors. Because of its reliance on melodies familiar to the season, it is somewhat restricted to play at the end of the calendar year, but in this age of digital shuffling, that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s unlikely that his exploration on “Carol Of The Bells” would go over well in the summer without raising a few eyebrows, but “The Holly And The Ivy” is an excellent example of where he can take a basic theme. Its simple melody is played through a few times before he finds a rolling set of changes to improvise upon, creating a wonderful wall of sound from just two hands. Likewise, arrangements of “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” (here titled just “Joy”) and the well-worn “Variations On The Kanon By Johann Pachelbel” do suggest the holidays, but don’t have to.
Lesser-known melodies are given welcome exposure, such as the Appalachian carol “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head” and “Some Children See Him”, the first of many carols by the jazz musician Alfred Burt that Winston would revive over the years. Of his own compositions, “Peace” is as stark as the photo on the cover and the three-part “Night” makes for vivid mind movies, but it’s the opening “Thanksgiving” that is a triumph in simplicity.
Such was the impact or success of December that George Winston didn’t put out a new album for nine years. Some have been worth the wait, particularly Forest, and his album-long tributes to the likes of Vince Guaraldi and The Doors (no, really) are very educational. It’s to his credit that he never went back to the well, choosing to follow his muse rather than inundate the market with further Christmas albums that would have little chance of replicating the beauty of this one.
George Winston December (1982)—4