The supremely gifted pianist talks about his inspiration and how composing is like giving birth.
You’d think such a tremendously gifted, world-renowned talent like pianist George Winston would be jet setting from San Francisco to his next gig in Minnesota on a sleek private jet, a limo awaiting on the tarmac to whisk him away to a four star hotel, where his PR peeps would be there to escort him to a spacious suite and fans would be camping out in the hotel lobby hoping he’d deign to sign their weathered album covers of his new age classics like Autumnor December.
Yes, you may think that’s the way it would be. But therein lies the inherent humility and wonderful charm of the enigma that is George Winston.
When we talked last week, Winston was cruising along in his rented Toyota on a highway somewhere in Nevada, soon to cross into Utah, only a mere 22 hours to go until he reached the Minnesota city of Rochester for his Saturday night performance at the Mayo Civic Center’s Presentation Hall. But he’d be stopping for the night in the first hotel he found, “when I get tired.”
Yep, just another musical genius tooling across America, playing his harmonica when he’s not on the phone with people like me, looking out at the vast landscapes passing by, waiting for the next brainstorm of miraculous Winstonesque music to waft through his mind. And what did he care most about? That his cell signal kept dropping out.
“Sorry the call keeps dropping,” he told me several times. “I know you’re busy. It’ll be better when I get into Utah, probably.”
“I could go on all day if this is how I get to talk to George Winston,” I replied.
“You might just be goin’ on all day! No problem with me — I’m just drivin’ for 20 hours or so.”
George Winston comes off as a tremendously humble and even ordinary man, in both attitude and appearance. But his piercingly evocative and utterly special music, and the successful career he has created with his incredible talent, are far from ordinary. In fact, they are extraordinary. If you’ve heard of George Winston, you no doubt own several of his works and his music is somehow ingrained deeply somewhere in your psyche. If you haven’t, well, you’re missing something incredibly special. Over the last thirty-plus years, Winston and his treasured Steinway have bridged the gap between startlingly gorgeous and emotional New Age compositions and beautifully familiar traditional melodies to form one of music’s most unique and lasting legacies.
Since his debut Ballads and Blues in 1972, Winston has released over a dozen albums of largely his own self proclaimed “rural folk piano ” music that have sold in droves worldwide – including albums supporting those affected by 9/11 (Remembrance – A Memorial Benefit) and Hurricane Katrina (Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions – A Hurricane Relief Benefit), as well as tribute albums to The Doors (Night Divides The Day – The Music of The Doors) and two dedicated to one of his many idols Vince Guaraldi (Linus and Lucy & Love Will Come). He also plays over 100 mesmerizing solo shows a year (including last weekend at George Mason University), even dabbling in acoustic guitar and blues harmonica sometimes in concert as an extra added treat.
But every time you call up one of his compositions, say on You Tube, there are dozens of comments that illustrate the deep emotional impact he has on those who have come to love his music. People feel his music, it becomes part of their heart and soul. Believe me, I speak of what I know, my wife and I both had tears running down our cheeks the last time we saw him live. But tell him that he has this kind of deeply personal effect on people, and he will humbly explain it away as being just a matter of one’s own personal tastes.
“I think everyone just likes what they like, and I really respect everyone’s tastes,” Winston told me from the highway. “One person could like it and another person doesn’t hear anything in it, and sometimes, you hear something and you might like it later, too. Everybody has their favorites, ya know, me included. Nobody’s universally liked, but I do appreciate it, because it gives me the chance to play live. I’m very grateful for the chance to play live, that’s my main thing. I’m glad some people like it, because if there’s hardly anyone there, you couldn’t play live (laughs). Live music is playing the songs…and somebody listens.”
Opening The Doors
Among George Winston’s biggest musical influences are New Orleans piano legends Professor Longhair, Henry Butler and James Booker, and the great stride pianist Fats Waller. But before hearing those great N’Awlins piano men, it was the music of one of rock music’s most innovative bands, and particularly their own piano man, that pretty much kicked things off.
“I didn’t listen to music until I was 12, except something out of a car radio, a Christmas carol or something like that. But when I was 12, that was 1961, and that was the year of a lot of instrumental hits, so the instrumentals were what I loved, particularly the organ. So after listening for six years, I saw a record by a band called The Doors, and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard. I thought, ‘I got to get an organ and play in a band’, so then I played organ in a band for about four years, but something wasn’t quite right, and I just thought well, I just haven’t played very long. Then in one 30-second time period, I got a Fats Waller piano recording from between 1929 and 1936 from the library, and I heard that first 30 seconds, and I said, ‘Solo piano, not organ in a band’, OK now, I can get started. It was just like hearing The Doors, it’s those moments in our life when thirty seconds changes everything. There was no decision and there was no thought, it was just, this is what it is.”
Speaking of The Doors, Winston is currently working on his second tribute album to the influential sixties foursome, and clearly feels the band has been a special inspiration to him as he has evolved as a musician. But not just the organ sound, their lead singer has something to do with it as well.
“I got the (Doors) album because of the organist, that’s what got me to buy it. But it was the whole thing. I always thought the singer and the organist were the same person, because it was so like…well, like Ray Charles played piano and sang, one thing, you know. But I thought the organist was the singer, I didn’t know anything about the band or anything, and I discovered it later. I didn’t really realize until about two years ago that Jim Morrison was the essence of my right hand – not the notes but the expression. The notes come from James Booker, Professor Longhair, Henry Butler and New Orleans, but the desire you express, and the expression itself…well, I could say James Booker’s my left hand, and Jim Morrison’s my right hand. As far as Ray (Doors keyboardist Manzarek), we played a show a while back and we correspond now and then, but I love (Doors members) Robbie, John and Jim just as much. It was all four, it was like, god, these guys are like one person.”
Yes, Winston had a number of important influences in those early days, including groundbreaking pianist Vince Guaraldi, and his mind became almost a bubbling brew of piano sounds that began to formulate and cast the dye for what is now his unique and influential sound.
“I heard Cast Your Fate To The Wind (from Guaraldi’s Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus record) in 1962 when that was a hit for him and I loved it, and then I heard of course the Peanuts special in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I just loved his piano in there. And I went to my local record store and there was the record. It was the first record I heard that seemed to me like one song all the way through with 11 parts. And that happened to me with The Doors record later, oh about 13 months after that, and that really struck me, another album with one song with multi-parts. The whole thing is a song. And that kinda ruled what I did from ‘Autumn’ on, one song connected together, up until then I didn’t really use a thematic concept. And that was the next step to say, ‘My favorite, favorite albums are really one song with multi parts.’ So that’s how I started doing them. I kinda floundered around into the late 1970’s, and then I heard Professor Longhair’s solo piano 1949-1953 recording, and I said ‘I got to try to play that’, and soon afterwards, I did ‘Autumn.’ And as far as that Professor Longhair tune? Ha, I’m still working on it. I’m still working on Break On Through by The Doors too, that’s gone on for, oh, 44 years.”
Some of Winston’s most profoundly beautiful works – Autumn, Winter Into Spring, December, – are based on the stunning magic of the changing seasons, which isn’t a surprise at all considering where Winston grew up, and the profound effect the changing times of the year had on him as a child.
“My biggest inspiration is the seasons, because the seasons are color, and they’re different every place; for example if it’s winter, it’s a different kind of winter in one place than the other. I think growing up in Eastern Montana, there was one radio station, no television, so the seasons were the entertainment; you rake the leaves and jump in a pile, or go out and sled, or go swimming in the summer, the seasons were the movies and the TV and all of the entertainment, the seasons were it. That just stayed with me, that’s the main thing, I’m always thinking of it, I might be in a big city, or in the country, but it’s still you know, the same date everywhere. I like urban settings as much as rural, it’s like wherever I am, it’s good. If there’s oxygen, then I feel that’s a good place.”
Another unexpected facet of Winston’s fascinating musical palette, of which you find are many as you speak to him, is his creative process. He doesn’t seem to agonize over searching for those elusive chords and notes that become a composition, the music, well, just seems to come to him, and his analogy of giving birth to a song is something that is particularly striking and memorable as part of that process.
“Sometimes when you have a project inside you, it must be kind of like being pregnant or something. You have an idea, I mean, it’s growing, without you doing anything. And then something maybe fertilizes the idea, like an event or a scene, but then it grows and it grows, and then you want to put it on canvas, or on a record. Things come to me pretty naturally, I don’t really write it down, I don’t do too much repetition, I just sort of get it to where if it’s in my sleep, I wake up, if it’s the first thing when I wake up, I go, ‘Well, it’s the day to work on this song.’ I wake up thinking it, and it’s just in you. I never try to compose a song, something just kinda starts happening. It can happen in the absence of a chord, or wow, those chords are pretty nice, I’ll write those chords down, or I’ll just dream them up. But I generally don’t do anything, I don’t write it down, sometimes I don’t even go right to the piano, I’ll just let it happen when I find myself playing that idea. Sometimes I’ll go, ‘I remember that thing I did six months ago. Oh OK…’ Each thing is totally different. I just don’t think about it too much. It’s gotta come out somehow. I never do it consciously. I never want to compose a song, and I never try to compose a song, it’s just something that happens, occasionally.”
The thing you keep returning to after spending a little time with George Winston is his humility and also a feeling of underlying generosity and advocacy. It’s not surprising that he has done a recent work dedicated to the Occupy movement, and that merchandise sales from his shows often go to local food banks. But how does someone who seems to be able touch so many people so deeply not become enamored with himself and that feeling of profound influence? Well, for the ever humble Winston, he just keeps remembering who got him to where he is: the audience. It is not lost on him that without them, well, he wouldn’t be able to do what he so clearly and deeply loves doing.
“I guess I kind of think of it in reverse,” Winston concludes as he crosses into Utah in his rental car. “I’m there because of them. If they weren’t there, I wouldn’t be there. I would be someplace else. It’s kinda like being an astronaut. You’re up there in space, but you know, it took a lot of people to get you up there.”
Damn, do I wish I was riding shotgun with him right now.
Steve Houk lives and breathes music. Even though he lives by day as a TV executive in Washington, he comes out at night in his cape and cowl as an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com.