A modern piano master isn’t slowing down anytime soon and the world is better off for it.
By Steve Houk
First, imagine Jim Morrison and his bandmates, especially Ray Manzarek‘s unmistakable keys, powering through a churning Doors’ classic. Next, picture Linus and Lucy bickering over a bouncy Vince Guaraldi composition as they glide in front of a Charles Schultz-induced Peanuts background. Finally, harken back to the mesmerizing rumba/mambo/calypso sounds Professor Longhair played on his piano in some smoky New Orleans club so many years ago.
To most people, it’s hard to think of three more different, more contrasting, more distinctive styles of music. But all three of them have an equal part in the creation of George Winston‘s musical soul. Yes, amidst the many magnificent and memorable musical landscapes that Winston has created in his unparalleled, almost fifty-year career, it is those three distinct musical feels that have become his main motivations, his constant muses. They are the core of influences that drive his brilliance, his seemingly never-ending creation of instantaneously recognizable musical beauty.
“The three composers I play the most of are The Doors, Vince Guaraldi and Professor Longhair,” Winston told me right before his upcoming tour gets underway. “So I’m always working on things of those three. They’re all hard to play, so some things take me years, or decades. I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to play ‘Break On Through’ by The Doors for 49 years. You certainly learn during the journey, and then you wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, put it in this other key and slow it down, OK, OK, now I got it.’ Ya know, who knows.”
Well, HE knows, for one. Winston has been playing his miraculous style of piano (and let’s not forget his virtuostic talents on harmonica and Hawaiian guitar as well) for audiences around the world over four-plus decades, and as he nears 70, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Winston brings what he calls his Winter Show to The Birchmere on December 5th.
“Right now, I’m on a third volume of Vince Guaraldi’s pieces called Bay of Gold,” Winston said. “I never care when anything comes out, I just care that it does someday. There’s some other future recordings that are worked on slowly. Like another volume of Doors’ pieces, probably a fourth volume of Vince Guaraldi way down the line.”
Winston is known mostly for his majestic and sweeping piano pieces that evoke special places, landscapes and seasons, as well as those three main influences he loves to continually revisit. He has recorded seventeen albums that cover a wide array of moods, even contributing unforgettable compositions to soundtracks for The Velveteen Rabbit and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes among others. But no matter what music it is, Winston wants it to come when it’s ready, and is in no rush to complete it.
“The songs are kinda like cats, or like things growing in a garden. They’re gonna grow when they wanna grow, not when I tell them to grow. You have to see what fits together. If you don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, well, then it’s not living and breathing, it’s not ready. You just gotta wait. Gotta practice, you just have to let time go by sometimes.”
Winston is lucky that his recording process hasn’t been dictated by anyone but himself, because he feels he wouldn’t succeed under those constraints.
“It’s hard to be inspired on demand, I would never have a thing where I’d have to do a record by a certain time,” Winston said. “That’s asking to have a record that’s not as good as it could be for sure. When they really feel done, then it’s done because I want it to be done, because it really is done, not because of some deadline. It would be bad for the music, so it couldn’t happen. If you don’t take care of the music, then there isn’t anything. A song will emerge, it’s a piece when it emerges, but if I tried to make it emerge, I wouldn’t do very well. And there’s people that do that very well, I am absolutely not one of them. I can tell you that.”
If you’re new to Winston’s music, well, shame on you. But it’s your lucky day, because here from the man himself is a primer on just how to get a proper taste of the wide swath of music he has created from his debut Ballads and Blues in 1972 to his latest, 2015’s Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit EP, recorded as he was battling a life threatening illness.
“If somebody hasn’t heard of me, I kind of start people…when they ask I say, I say OK, well, start with Autumn, and then maybe Linus and Lucy, the first Guaraldi volume. Kind of a more uptempo thing and a melodic thing. If they’re still interested, I’ll say OK, how about Winter & Spring and The Doors Volume One? I don’t want to drown people with all seventeen (records), so it’s about how do we start. Kind of in stages, like reading Volume One of a book, or Volume Two or something. I mean personally I like to have the whole ball of wax dumped on me, but that can be hard for some people in some circumstances.”
Winston’s continually magical music seems effortless, like it just kind of pours out of him and into our minds and souls. Not true, says Winston, who again truly feels that his music comes to him when it’s ready to, not when he asks for it to.
“It’s all hard for me, none of it’s effortless. At least for me. I gotta work on it all the time. I mean, when a song comes together, it kinda happens by itself. That’s kinda not an effort, because I’m not trying for anything. I’m always just trying to broaden it, try to widen it, try to deepen it, try to get it better. But there’s only so many hours in the day.”
George Winston performs Monday December 5th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here.