A piano master uses a health scare to craft more of his miraculous music.

By Steve Houk

Photo credit Joe Del Tufo.
Photo credit Joe Del Tufo.

The last time I interviewed George Winston, he was driving. It was about 4 years or so ago, and he was at the wheel of a rented Nissan heading from San Francisco to Minnesota for his next gig, talking away as he drove. It was amazing.

When I called to talk to Winston last week, lo and behold, once again, he was driving, to yet another show.

The more I thought of it, the more it makes sense. George Winston driving, out on the road gathering the motivation to write his miraculous music from gazing out at the different palettes of color and landscape and shadow and light that he sees while driving the highways and byways of America. It makes perfect sense.

Or maybe, it’s just a great time to work on his harmonica playing.

“Yes, that’s when I work on it, mainly. You have one hand on the wheel, one hand on the harmonica. Sort of a hands free device.”

Regardless what Winston does on his long drives, one of the world’s most unique and gifted musicians is back. Fans of Winston were concerned and rumors swirled when he basically dissapeared from touring and recording a couple years back, only to resurface recently, seemingly healthy and ready to get back to what he does best. Winston plays The Birchmere on Sunday November 8th.

“It was a bone marrow transplant, that technology is much more advanced than it used to be,” an upbeat and almost jovial Winston told me, yes, while driving. “I was at City of Hope in the L.A. area for oh, I don’t know 3 to 4 months. I’m glad it’s the 21st century, it’s pretty much like nothing ever happened. Going in the right direction instead of the wrong direction, so that’s always good.”

That is great news to his legion of fans worldwide, many of whom have made his wondrous and timeless music part of their lives for the past 40 some years. And it appears that while going through his recent health crisis, he managed to keep composing, keep writing music, not only coming out of the ordeal with his health, but also a few dozen new compositions.

“Where I was, and the great treatment, just that environment, definitely came into play, for sure,” Winston said. “Songs all came out of being there. They have a village and you can stay there if you have alot of appointments, and they also had a piano available anytime I wanted, half a block away, I mean how much better can you have it? So I wrote a bunch of tunes there and that’ll be the next record called Spring Carousel Cancer Research Benefit, it’ll benefit the City of Hope’s research, that’ll be out next year, it’s all recorded. I was practicing songs for when I’d be back playing concerts, but these other things just happened, kind of on their own. It’s just what was happening at the time. Just kind of emerged. Like a cat coming through a cat door or something. I think altogether there were 57 songs. So it’ll be a double CD, I’ll get back to the studio in January and gotta kinda see what fits together.”

For Winston, as many of his most loyal fans know, his glorious music seems to come to him almost by accident, there is no premeditated ritual or plan. It’s hard to believe given the depth and power of his music, but it really just…happens.

“I never try to compose anything, it just either happens or it doesn’t,” Winston continued. “I’m very neutral about it, it’s not bad or good. If I’m not composing something, I’m working on something else, like The Doors or Vince Guaraldi or Professor Longhair. I don’t know how people compose something man, I couldn’t do it. Kinda like noticing something happening, writing it down the next day, writing down the chords, that’s got a picture with it, there’s a season, that’s got a thing, it’s a song. Some of them evaporate away.”

As astonishing as George Winston’s music is, his humility is even moreso. After listening to any of his musical masterpieces, songs from his 1972 debut Ballads and Blues to the aforementioned cancer research EP he wrote while undergoing his own cancer treatment, you think he couldn’t get any better at playing the piano. Unless you ask him, of course.

“Playing’s improving slowly over time. Still working on it. I may be about two thirds of where I want to be, on a good day. Maybe on a not-so-good day, about sixty percent. But it’s great to be able to play for people, that’s why I play. Records are a secondary thing I do now and then. Once in a while that’ll be how things form. But the main thing for me is the live playing.”

George Winston performs on Sunday, November 8th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. For tickets click here.

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