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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 7, 2000


Piano man Winston
just as passionate
about slack key

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


The first Hawaiian recordings were made around 1900 but slack-key went almost unnoticed for more than 40 years, and the few records made were usually available only in Hawaii.

George Winston has spent the past decade taking slack-key music to the world as the creator and producer of the Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Masters Series on his Dancing Cat label, but the modest and soft-spoken musician makes it clear he wasn't the first booster of Hawaii's slack-key tradition.

"It's a privilege and a pleasure to do it. Slack key was the most unrecorded of the world's great guitar traditions, and it was my favorite, and I knew I was hearing about 1 percent of it. How many reasons did I need?" Winston said in a phone call from Kauai, where he opened a mini tour of the islands. He performs at the Blaisdell Concert Hall on Sunday.


Bullet Who: George Winston
Bullet When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Bullet Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Bullet Tickets: $24 and $22 main floor, $18 balcony
Bullet Call: 591-2211

"Everybody was always saying, 'You should hear them when they play by themselves; you should hear them when they're not on stage' and that's basically what we do. I'm a soloist and a solo player myself so that's kinda what it's based on, but I just want to chronicle what happened with my own favorite musical tradition at its peak in the last half of the 20th century."

For his local performances, Winston will be playing songs from "Winter Show," along with songs from his current "Plains" album and "a little bit of slack key."

Although he's best known as a pianist Winston has played several shows this year as a solo guitarist.

"That's a real challenge because I'm about where I was on the piano in 1985 so I'm backtracking. Of course I still got a ways to go on the piano.

"(Piano) will always be part of what I do but I'd be kinda a lost soul without slack key."

Winston says his next album for the Windham Hill label will be titled "Dance" and consist of songs from his live performances "that seem to work on record."

"I play music just to play music. I really don't think of records until one starts growing and I decide I'll freeze these 15 tunes onto that disc. It all comes from live playing. If records didn't exist, I wouldn't be able to play in as many places but I would still be playing."

Winston is touring this year in support of the "Plains" album, a project inspired by the stark Montana landscape of his youth. He is quietly celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Windham Hill rerelease of his self-released "Ballads and Blues" album.

Slack key has been his passion almost as long. The music of Hawaii's modern virtuosos has become ever more visible with the Dancing Cat/Windham Hill connection. Each album comes with a booklet that includes an artist bio, basic information on each selection, the slack-key tuning used, the artist's discography, and where to seek more information. Winston generally includes enough information on the back cover of the album that shoppers who've never heard of slack key will understand the significance of the music.

"(These artists) should be treated like Robert Johnson or Segovia. This is historical and current, and slack key goes as deep as anything else, including the blues."

He describes himself as an avid reader of liner notes. "That's how I learned about music. If I was listening to Fats Waller I'd read about his influences and then I'd buy them, so I'm just continuing where I learned from. Back in LP days all that (information) was there on the back. I believe you should provide enough information so you can tell what it is. 'If this is what you're interested in, here it is!' "

Winston will be extending the available information further on the Web. He's planning to add "about 100 pages of information" that he describes as building on earlier work by Keith Haugen and Mike McClellan in the '70s.

"Slack key is my guitar language even though I'm from someplace else. As a listener and a player you do whatever you want. The thing is, you have to put in the time.

"I've been listening for 25 years and everyone I record is one of my influences. I'd be listening to it anyway so why not make it available for other people?"

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