George Winston doesn't care about being cool. One of the few non-classical or jazz solo pianists in the world to find a bit of fame, Winston doesn't need to win popularity contests to sell records to the growing fanbase he's had since 1980.
That's when Winston released Autumn, his first solo piano record on Windham Hill—a label known primarily for its stable of soothing instrumental artists (Jim Brickman, Mark Isham, an album called Grow Younger, Live Longer with holistic physician Deepak Chopra). Windam Hill self-identifies as a new age label, and—if there's one way to destroy your hip appeal—that's it. But they sell records, and Winston sells out concert halls. No, the bespectacled, balding Winston doesn't need to care about being cool.
But here's something that gives George Winston all the credibility he'd ever need in any indie music circle: His first album was recorded in 1972 by John Fahey for Fahey's hugely important Takoma label (Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, Bukka White). The late Fahey may be the most venerated solo guitarist of the past several decades, and—with a comeback-man backstory and ties to and influence over avant rock pioneers like Thurston Moore, David Grubbs and Jack Rose—he's, at the very least, the one that's most indie-rock-relevant.
Winston's Takoma connection changes everything, at least in terms of (no depth) perception: Windham Hill is instrumental music for your adult-contemporary parents when they need to spend a night relaxing beside a candle. Takoma is instrumental music for smart kids who think they need a challenge. Common knowledge, right? But, given Takoma, Winston suddenly seems cool for something he did 30 years ago, which is much the same thing as he's been doing ever since.
But it doesn't change Winston's playing at all: His songs are still the same subdued, pretty, R&B piano-based meditations. His playing is still quiet and intentionally calming. He still handles Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" like it's made of fine crystal. He still covers his albums with pictures of sunsets and fields of flowers. Perhaps a continued association with Fahey would have tempted Winston to tinker more heavily with his perfect music theory and his intense extrapolations of standard chord progressions, but probably not. Those are revisionist concerns, anyway, when the reality is this: As disappointing and revealing as it is to admit, knowing Winston came with a Fahey seal of approval makes Winston cool. Don't believe it? Tell anyone who knows Fahey and Winston but not of their relationship for that early album, Ballads and Blues, and watch them get confused really fast.
Better yet, ask that person how he feels about Eluvium, Stars of the Lid, Do Make Say Think, Keith Fullerton Whitman's Playthroughs, or any other number of ambient, trance-like albums currently making the rounds in hipster music circles of validation. Eluvium is the solo project of Seattle musician Matthew Cooper, and his hazy, nuanced aural atmospheres are, fundamentally, much the same as Winston. They're both committed to creating a mood in at least four dimensions, using instrumental techniques and theoretical exercises that four-minute pop songs generally don't allow. But Cooper's Eluvium is young, cool and signed to Temporary Residence Limited. That's a name that gets you the attention and respect of most American hipsters.
Indeed, the line between experimental ambient recordings and new age ambience is tenuous, at best, and I can't tell you why young music critics and fans are suddenly into the experimental side. If it were technical innovation, you'd hear a lot more about Arvo Pärt's tintinnabulation or Rhys Chatham's sprawling works for massed guitars and overtones in your local record store. People rarely want to hang their headphones on the "It's pretty" thesis or because it's relaxing or healing, even. That seems to require too much of a new-age suspension of disbelief for people so high-minded that they're already over indie rock. But it's probably true: We like pretty music because it makes us feel good, but it makes us feel good only if one of the hippest labels in the land approves. Which means my mom is cooler than all of us.
Eluvium plays with Explosions in the Sky and The Paper Chase at the Cat's Cradle Thursday, March 15, at 9:30 p.m. George Winston played the Carolina Theatre on Saturday, March 10. You wouldn't have gone anyway.