Thursday, December 02, 2004


I would buy my father CDs of Christmas carols. For both of my parents, really, but primarily for my father since I thought, somehow, he might appreciate them more. Or, perhaps more aptly, he would be less likely to buy such things for himself. My mother might find a recording somewhere and grab it, my sister would do no such thing but might smile faintly if she heard something that appealed.

One such disc was George Winston. A few decades of piano experience have given me a grudging (and underline the word grudging) respect for Winston and for his label Windham Hill. The bad news is that they're frequently dead boring. The good news is that they're consistent.

I have to explain how this is at all positive...imagine a label with vaguely new-age leanings (in the firmly mid-80's sense of the term where a drum or a whistle made you vaguely exotic), and some strange jazz instrumentation (string quartets playing Gershwin, a cello impersonating a saxophone). Windham Hill artists belong to this very mellow, very 'let the instrument do the talking' school of music. Seniors won't like it because they won't play songs, more musical noodlings. Music students consider it absolutely uncool. It's too supposedly high-brow for easy listening stations (who have grown to love Phil Collins) and far too lowbrow for the Classical 97 crowd.

And all that said- the Windham Hill artists have never wavered. If they were dull or muted or real subtle in the beginning, they remain so today. Nothing about them is watered down- every note is deliberate. Thus, George Winston, who noodles away on a piano in a way that verges on cloying or haunting or simply noodling. I can deal with noodles- can push them away with a shrug. And the 'verges' part of cloying means that his tune is over simplistic, but not overproduced- 101 strings would make it trash. There are no strings. It's just what Winston wants to do.

So that all said- he released an album called 'December' 20 years ago, I found it around 7 years ago and gave it to my father. Interesting disclaimer on the CD, a note that says something along the lines of 'This CD is a celebration of holiday music styles and does not represent any religious beliefs on my part', which I also kinda respected, musically. Sort of saying I like the tunes, I recorded them, buy it or not, I'm not suddenly becoming Christian simply to cash in on the season, ok? Buy it or not for the music.

So, as a reluctant Christmas album, he gets my grudging respect. It's a weird one- his Carol of the Bells is downright creepy. There's a slightly over stylized but downright joyous version of Ode to Joy, and one genuine curiosity- a few soft notes that I watched my father listen to for the first time...when? '96? '97? An old Radio Shack CD player connected to an older amp, dusty carpet, my mother and neighbours trimming the tree- it had become their custom, being a nice Jewish family they didn't have much Christmas tree experience and, as known, it only comes but once a year- I was sitting just outside of the chaos when I heard my father quietly singing

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
Soft upon your manger bed.
All the wicked folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth

I had never heard it before. My mother thought it was vaguely Celtic, although most sources peg it as Appalachian. My father mentioned that he had sung it as a child, which pegs it as Methodist/Baptist, which would fit with Appalachia. But the idea of it flooded me - an old carol. Sung on snowy nights somewhere that had all other sound erased by the snow. Leave the city and end up in a small town on a snowy night (and I recommend Mount Forest or Neustadt, middle of the snowbelt, a cozy small pub in each) and the cars a few feet away will turn into nothing as the drifts climb.

Back to Winston. The CD is dusty, my mother won't touch the carols this year, thus far at least. Its just as possible she'll decide to hell with it and crack them all in an afternoon. Carpe Christmas. Or there will be a supply of Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall and Noel Coward (I know the third name doesn't fit- I'm describing her collection, not reciting a best-of list). It won't be the Winston. I own the CD - somewhere - and it sounds like a mix of mid-80's new age and late '97 amusement.

It sounds (or, more precisely) feels like this to me...

....a pressed-tin ceiling of a general store in a small town. The ceiling was taken down long before I was born, but there have been pictures. Stories. Or maybe just an impression of the way I would like to think of it, in the days where a small church would sing Jesus, Jesus, Rest your Head. Sort of, at least.

And for reasons that are complicated to explain, the only impression I have of the face of God is a snowy night illuminated against a black sky. Or so many stars, descending.


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