Like most people, my introduction to the Windham Hill label was through the massively successful album December, by the pianist George Winston. One Christmas, it just seemed to be everywhere—on the radio, and playing in every store and café you went into during the holiday season. Fortunately, it’s a pretty pleasant album. I bought it. (Though I hid it from most of my friends, as our musical tastes during that period ran more to The Clash and Elvis Costello than warm, fuzzy, feel good piano music for the holidays.)
I was reminded of this music a couple of weeks ago—night was falling so much earlier, and there were a couple of drizzly, overcast days, damp, cold and dark. I felt the drawing in of the dark, the frost in the air, the approach of the longest night, the holidays bearing down on us. Halloween is past and Thanksgiving is coming up fast, and after that it always seems like only a couple of weekends go by before it’s Christmas.
Update: Another year. It seems colder. Maybe the cold just came on more quickly. And dark so early now. The hinge of the year less than two week away. You can stream all of George Winston’s December to help you get through the dark, cold afternoons at work…
The huge success of December spawned a whole genre or industry. Windham Hill knew a good thing when they saw it, and they released a slew of albums designed to appeal in the same way that December did, to a need for pleasant, soothing music that connects with the holiday spirit and season, and with the traditional music of Christmas time.
The “Winter’s Solstice” and then “Celtic Christmas” series featured various Windham Hill recording artists and others playing variations on classic holiday music and songs in the same mode. Some pieces work better than others. Some of the collections are uneven or have too much stuff that just doesn’t have the right holiday sound for me. But a few of the albums seem to me of a sustained level of achievement, and full of pleasure, and of the spirit of the Solstice and Christmas season, the darkness and the lights—in particular these:
- A Winter’s Solstice: Windham Hill Artists
- A Winter’s Solstice III
- Celtic Christmas: A Windham Hill Sampler
These albums are played frequently, over and over, during the holidays—in all my houses and with all my families. Holiday traditions, new and old—important to me, and I think I’m not alone in that. Here are a few tracks—not too many, though, and none of the full-on Christmas ones because it is still a bit early to be listening to Christmas music, even for a big wet hen like me.
George Winston, “Thanksgiving”– from December
- David Qualey, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – from A Winter’s Solstice
- Liz Story, “Pavane” – from A Winter’s Solstice III
Calm, warm, familiar. When you’re footsore from an evening spent shopping for food or gifts for the holidays, a damp and blustery evening perhaps, this is the egg nog of music—relaxing, restorative, full of memory and tradition. But it’s a particular holiday mode. Not jolly, not a party, music that seems to me in tune more with the pagan roots, the human and natural roots, of the holiday season, than with the commercialized and party atmosphere that too often prevails these days. It’s not “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Jingle Bell Rocks.”
The music of Windham Hill and its artists is sometimes derided as “new age”—meaning a kind of feel good, acoustic, folksy muzak. As one reviewer put it, “pallid, self-absorbed and antiseptic.” Others have described it as the aural equivalent of a warm bath. Well, I don’t know about you, but there are times when there’s nothing I want more than a warm bath, so even to the extent that this is a valid description of the music, it doesn’t mean it is completely lacking in appeal. After a hard, cold day, a warm bath can be extraordinarily pleasant.
After Thanksgiving and continuing up through Christmas, I’ll be posting regular “Songs of the Season”—my favorite tracks and tunes for the holidays, from these and other albums—as well as clips from favorite holiday movies and TV shows. After the holidays, we will return you to your regularly scheduled programming…
- Windham Hill Records – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- December (George Winston album) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- December, Piano Solos: Special Edition – Amazon.com
- A Winter’s Solstice: Windham Hill Artists – Amazon.com
- A Winter’s Solstice III – Amazon.com
- A Winter’s Solstice IV – Amazon.com
- Celtic Christmas: A Windham Hill Sampler – Amazon.com
- Windham Hill Christmas: I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Amazon.com
- George Winston | The Official George Winston Site
- Musica Dal Pianeta Terra: George Winston – December (1982, Windham Hill Records)
Adagio – A Windham Hill Collection (download torrent) – TPB Windham Hill Sampler ’94 (download torrent) – TPB