Long-dead record label Windham Hill’s Winter Solstice tour turns 35

Barbara Higbie (left), Todd Boston and Mia Pixley are scheduled to perform as part of the annual Windham Hill Winter Solstice production. Photo: Irene Young

A question of “Jeopardy” style: Founded in a garage in the Palo Alto area, this company has turned a well-established business model upside down, opened up new avenues for innovators and radically broadened a hitherto untapped market.

What is… Hewlett-Packard? Apple? Google? In this case, the company that defined the era was Windham Hill, a label that emerged in the 1980s as a juggernaut of instrumental music, selling millions of records containing acoustic tracks that eliminated distinctions between music. jazz, folk, classical and New Age. Now that music distribution is dominated by Spotify and YouTube, it might sound like a fable. But once upon a time, a disparate roster of musicians such as acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges, electric bassist Michael Manring and the Turtle Island String Quartet opened new sonic frontiers and sold heaps of albums.

The Windham Hill brand has vanished since its catalog disappeared into Sony’s sprawling universe over ten years ago. The label was first bought by BMG in the 90s and became a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment after a merger in 2008.

But one of the label’s flagship projects, a live performance series dubbed the Windham Hill Winter Solstice Tour, reappears every year as the days grow shorter. Following a canceled 2020 edition, which would have marked the 35th anniversary of the 1985, platinum-selling compilation “A Winter’s Solstice,” this year’s Winter Solstice production is slated for a series of performances at three venues across the region. bay area Thursday through Saturday, December 16-18.

The program features the West Coast Triumvirate of Albany multi-instrumentalist Barbara Higbie, Alameda cellist and singer Mia Pixley, and Portland multi-instrumentalist Todd Boston. Marking the season with a rising generation of artists and a renewed sense of purpose, the Windham Hill tour builds on a legacy of some two dozen Winter Solstice-themed albums released by the label over the years. year.

Best known as a pianist who combines supple lyricism and exuberant rhythms, Higbie produced a series of influential albums for Windham Hill in the 1980s with fiddler Darol Anger and the Montreux Band (and contributed a track to “A Winter’s Solstice II ”) from 1988 while recording for Olivia Records with singer-songwriter Teresa Trull.

A veteran of many Winter Solstice tours with former label mates such as guitarist Alex de Grassi, pianist Liz Story and guitarist Will Ackerman, who founded the label in his garage in Palo Alto, Higbie is happy that the latest iteration “gives young players more space with a lot of fresh energy,” she said. “Mia and Todd use looping in an artistic way that really stretches the acoustic sound.”

Pixley, a clinical psychologist who uses her cello in her practice, first joined the Solstice tour in 2018 with Higbie, Ackerman and de Grassi. Even with her day job and occupying parenthood, she has appeared in a succession of creatively charged situations, contributing cello on Fantastic Negrito’s Grammy-winning album “Please Don’t Be Dead” and singing the song. title song on “Negative Press Project” Eternal Life: Songs and Sounds by Jeff Buckley. “

Shortly after releasing his first solo album as a singer-songwriter in July, “Margaret in the Wild”, Pixley collaborated with the de Young Museum, dancer-choreographer. Kimberly Marie Olivier and the classical and electronic organization Mercury Soul to create a video for his song “Everything Is Slow Motion”, a response to the legacy of racism and injustice.

As a black artist, she sees the new Winter Solstice tour as a harbinger of change.

“It supports some of the big changes that have taken place over the past two years,” she said. “Barbara is the leader, but we all support each other in a way that we feel is really equal. We all play our own stuff, but it’s a lot more equal. Not that it wasn’t there before, but it’s much more intentional now.

Like Pixley, Boston also recorded an album during the pandemic, offering a calming session of original tunes, “Hope.” And Higbie recently released “Whisper,” an all-female session “that goes back to my Windham Hill roots with relaxing instrumental music,” she said.

Starring Pixley and other prominent players like percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz and multi-instrumentalist and singer Vicki Randle, this is the second volume in a series of three albums that she calls her “chillogy” project. which unites its two main musical movements, Windham Hill and the music of women.

She’ll be diving into the latter when she returns to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage, one of the stops on the Winter Solstice Tour, Jan. 14-15, with a female cast of stars for the author’s big reunion. -composer-performer Cris Williamson. concerts.

But for now, Higbie is focused on creating a soundtrack for an ancient ritual celebrating rebirth and reconnection – and perhaps presenting some music history to a new generation in the process. For the first two concerts, the headliners will be joined on several numbers by Voena, a children’s choir from Benicia, and 16-year-old mandolin phenomenon Jasper Manning, who will also be at the Carriage House “playing with us on songs. bits of bluegrass, all really quick stuff, ”Higbie said.

“Music creates a social bond, and the social bond allows us to go through difficult times,” she added. “Even with all the technology we have, there is something so powerful about marking the cycles we all live with.”

Windham Hill 35th Anniversary Winter Solstice Tour with Barbara Higbie, Todd Boston and Mia Pixley: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 16. $ 25- $ 75. Green Music Center, Weill Hall, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 707-664-4246. https://gmc.sonoma.edu; 8 p.m. Friday, December 17. $ 40- $ 55. Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-644-2020. www.thefreight.org; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 18. Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. $ 50 to $ 64. 408-961-5800. www.montalvoarts.org/calendar.html

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