NOVEMBER 29, 2011
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, a record or artist outside the mainstream will make a blip on the pop culture radar, like Norah Jones’s sudden ascendance to platinum and Grammy-winning success with her 2002 debut Come Away With Me. That image of her juggling an armful of Grammy statues backstage at the awards ceremony is still pretty striking.
When it comes to holiday music, there is a fairly well-prescribed set of parameters that make for a successful release. Stick to the classics. Include lots of sleigh bells. Choose traditional arrangements. Repeat as necessary. Dozens of holiday-themed records come out every year with that same formula, which is what makes George Winston’s December both an anomaly and a wonder.
The incredibly spare album of new age solo piano pieces put Windham Hill on the map as the go-to new age recording in the 1980’s and managed to help people realize that quiet recordings don’t have to be church organs or chamber orchestras. This is still one of the most peaceful records we’ve ever heard. It was one of Oprah’s Favorite Things for Christ sake!
Unlike many great Christmas records before and after it, December is not solely about Christmas as the name alone would denote. Rather, this is an ode to the quiet, cold winter that descends upon the northern hemisphere in the twelfth month of the year.
While Winston does touch on a few traditional holiday carols including “Carol of the Bells,” and “The Holly and the Ivy,” much of the record swings back and forth between subtle renditions of classical compositions like Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (here simply titled “Joy”) and “Variations on the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel” — a song you probably know from umpteen million weddings — and sparse original compositions for piano.
The music on December is the very definition of what musicians mean when they talk about “the space between the notes.” Winston leaves long gaps in between notes, allowing the reverb of the room to slowly decay while still keeping one hand on the composition for balance. He alternates between blustery performances of the songs’ hearty melodies and subtle keystrokes that sound as if a snowflake touched the piano wire.
This is not a record for entertaining or for playing at parties. This is an album for relaxing and reflecting. We are hard-pressed to think of a record more aptly titled and more evocative of a time and feeling than December. Even the cover, with its barren trees and snow-covered glade, could not be more appropriate. It’s one of the season’s most gentle and honest, along with being damn beautiful.
- Thanksgiving 4:06
Inspired by friends and places of Miles City, Montana.
- Rest Your Head 2:38
An Appalachian carol from the late nineteenth century. Collected by the eminent folklorist John Jacob Niles (1892-1980).
- Joy 3:14
By J.S. Bach, originally titled Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and inspired by an arrangement by guitarist David Qualey, from his album, Guitar Solo (Telefunken Records 6.23413 – German import).
- Prelude 1:16
Inspired by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976). Vince Guaraldi was best known for his piece, Cast Your Fate to the Wind, which he composed and recorded in 1962, and for his soundtracks for the first
sixteen of the Peanuts® animations – from the first one in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy Records), to the last episode he scored, It’s Arbor Day Charlie Brown, recorded just before he
passed away in 1976. I have recorded two albums of his compositions: Linus & Lucy–The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol 1 and Love Will Come–The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol 2 (Dancing Cat Records).
- Carol of the Bells 3:58
A traditional Ukrainian song. This version was inspired by the winters in Billings, Montana.
- Night 5:48
- Part One: Snow 1:51
- Part Two: Midnight 1:54
- Part Three: Minstrels 2:03
Minstrels was inspired by St. Basil’s Hymn, a traditional Greek children’s New Years carol based upon a rendition by Malcolm Dalglish from his album with Grey Larsen, Thunderhead (Flying Fish Records).
- Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel 5:22
Composed circa 1699, the Kanon may have originated as a solo pipe organ piece.
- The Holly and the Ivy 4:53
An eighteenth century English carol based upon an earlier French carol. The middle section was partly influenced by the great modern composer, Steve Reich.
- Some Children See Him 3:43
Composed in 1951 by jazz trumpeter Alfred S. Burt (1921-1954), with lyrics by Wihla Hutson. This was one of fifteen carols for which Alfred Burt wrote the music, originally just to print on personal Christmas cards to family friends. Three trumpet-like sounds can be heard as the piano rings out at the end of the song.
All of Alfred Burt’s fifteen carols are on the album produced by the Burt family, This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols (Legacy Music 422B).
- Peace 4:00
Inspired by composer Dominic Frontiere’s soundtracks for the first year of the television series, The Outer Limits, from 1962-1963. Some of the music has been issued on the album, Original Television Soundtrack – The Outer Limits, Vol. 1 (Crescendo Records 8032).
Total time: 39:41
December Album Credits
All pieces composed or arranged by George Winston except where noted.
Produced by William Ackerman and George Winston
Recorded in September and October of 1982
Engineered by Steven Miller, Assistant Engineer Karen Kirsch, except where noted
Engineering by Karen Kirsch on Carol of the Bells and Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel
Mastered by Bernie Grundman of Bernie Grundman Mastering, Hollywood, CA
Photos by Greg Edmonds
Design by Anne Robinson and William Ackerman
Current edition revisions by Lynn Piquett
Thanksgiving, Prelude, Snow, Midnight, and Peace were composed in 1982 by George Winston, published by Dancing Cat Music/Imaginary Road Music,
administered by Wixen Music. (BMI)
Some Children See Him composed by Alfred S. Burt, published by Hollis Music Inc. (BMI)
Rest Your Head, Joy, Carol of the Bells, Minstrels, Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel, and The Holly and the Ivy are public domain, arranged by George Winston, published by Dancing Cat Music/Imaginary Road Music, administered by Wixen Music. (BMI)
There is a great wealth of traditional and contemporary music to draw from in recording an album for the winter season. These five albums have been very inspirational to me in conceiving December:
Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas (2012 Remastered & Expanded Edition – Fantasy Records FAN 43027-02)
Howard Blake, The Snowman – soundtrack from the animation of the classic Raymond Briggs children’s story (CBS Records)
John Fahey, The New Possibility (Fantasy/Takoma Records)
Joseph Byrd, A Christmas Yet To Come (Takoma Records 1046 – out of print)
Alfred S. Burt, This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols (Legacy Music 422B)
Special thanks to Steven Miller and Cathy Econom for their valuable contributions in production.
Special thanks also to Howard Blake, the Burt family, the late Henry Roeland Byrd (Professor Longhair), Joseph Byrd, Mario Casetta, Megan Corwin, John Creger, John Fahey, Dominic Frontiere, Vince Guaraldi, Sam Hinton, Frosty Horton, Gail Lovett, Jane McHugh, John Meunier, Lorraine Monson, Steve Reich, Bola Sete, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Shad Weathersby, and Paula Wenham.
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George Winston is also recording many of the masters of Hawaiian Slack Key guitar for Dancing Cat Records. Slack Key is the name for the beautiful solo finger-style guitar tradition unique to the Islands, which began in the early 1800s, and pre-dates the better-known steel guitar by half a century. For more information about Slack Key guitar, including an eight section
information booklet, to hear song samples, and to order recordings, visit our website at http://www.dancingcat.com.
If you would like to be on Dancing Cat’s mailing list, or if you have any questions about Slack Key guitar, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.