ARCHIVE: Winston, Just Noticing Things

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 19, 2009)

pianoSpring, as they say, has sprung; the lamb’s poised to pin the lion, and it’s fitting that the change of seasons would bring with it a visit by an artist whose public persona was crafted as a signifier of seasons — a figure as inevitable as Jack Frost, or the first swallow back to Capistrano.

George Winston may keep as low a profile as a multi-platinum selling, hard-touring musician can maintain, but there’s no denying that his hugely successful series of solo piano “seasons” albums for the Windham Hill label were instrumental in defining the whole “New Age” movement in music — a tag that the Montana-bred Winston has always disdained, preferring to characterize his sound as “rural folk piano.”

Indeed, while Winston’s works have long served as soundtracks to gift shops from coast to coast, his music is hardly the sonic equivalent of a scented candle. Listen closely and you’ll hear a lot of American musical history, particularly the great New Orleans piano men from whom he unabashedly claims to have drawn his greatest inspiration. It’s an influence that comes to the fore in his most recent release, Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions — A Hurricane Relief Benefit.

Like the 9/11-themed mini-album he did several years back, the 2006 Gulf Coast album is a project the proceeds from which are entirely dedicated to charitable organizations working in and around the regions that sustained the most devastating damage from Hurricane Katrina. It’s also a payment of a musical debt from Winston to his muses and mentors — with the pianist expected to spotlight several selections from the album this Thursday night, March 26, when he takes the stage of the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University for an 8pm solo concert.

Expect also to hear things from the forthcoming Winston album Love Will Come: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol. 2. Like his 1996 Linus and Lucy album, it’s an homage to the late San Francisco jazz genius whose trademark sound will forever be linked with A Charlie Brown Christmas and all those other great Peanuts cartoons. Winston’s catalog also includes tributes to The Doors and a whole series of baseball-related tunes, so just about anything’s possible.

Red Bank oRBit got a chance to speak with Winston by phone, and found the quiet keyboardist an engaging conversationalist, as well as an eloquent spokesman for his musical passions, techniques and fancies. Here’s how it all went…

RED BANK ORBIT: So this is your…third? Fourth time here in Monmouth County?

GEORGE WINSTON: It’s great to be back. I’ve played Monmouth University once before, and I’ve been to the Count Basie Theatre three or four times — I love the area. Red Bank, Long Branch, Asbury Park — you’ve got quite a nice little triangle there.

Now, according to the school, you’re touring behind the Gulf Coast album project…

I don’t really tour around albums. I’ve only made eleven of them since 1972, so for me the thinking is more centered around the live shows — they’re two different mediums for me. A concert would usually be about sixty percent from the albums, forty percent other things, including some things that have never been on any of the records.

For you, then, a recording isn’t so much a “new” work, as a summing up of what you’ve been doing for the past couple of years — and from there it’s on to the next project?

A record is a kind of photograph of where you’re at, at a particular time in your life. I don’t hate anything I’ve ever done, but I suppose I don’t love anything I’ve done either. I just do the best I can do at the time; say what I want to say. The first record I did was just ten of the best tunes I had. They fit together, and later when it was reissued it came with five bonus tracks.

And that first record from way back in 1972, which you did for a small folk music label, has been included in that box set that was released last year?

The box set contains the ten solo piano albums, before Gulf Coast. And I’m getting ready to put out a new release, which is a followup to the Vince Guaraldi project I did earlier.

That one really hit the spot for a lot of people. What can you tell us about the second Guaraldi set?

About two thirds of it is Peanuts music, and one third other jazz compositions — of course “Cast Your Fate to the Winds” is one of his three most memorable pieces of music, along with “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmastime Is Here.”

That was just the perfect matchup of soundtrack and image, those cartoons. The music was as simple on the surface, and as sophisticated as the comics were — Guaraldi really played like Charles Schulz would draw. 

Vince did the first sixteen Peanuts cartoons before he died in 1976. He had two kids, so he understood kids. And what he did worked so well with what the producer Lee Mendelson was doing; and Bill Melendez was doing the animation. It was just a great team.

Do you see a little of your young self in Schroeder, the prodigy with the bust of Beethoven on his toy piano?

No, I started slowly — I’m still working on it! I didn’t even listen to music until I was 12, and I didn’t start playing until I was 18 — I had a few lessons like any other average middle class kid. I would take out my father’s 78s — Jimmy YanceyMeade Lux Lewis — this would be 1961, and that was a time when there were many instrumental hits. Organ instrumentals; Booker TDave “Baby” Cortez, music that carried echoes of the swing era. Then there was that brief blip of surf music around 1962, with the Ventures.

Were you into any vocal music at all in those days?

I liked some vocalists, such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. But I was crazy about instrumental music. Just like the girls were for the Beatles, that’s how I was. Later on in 1967, I was inspired very much by The Doors, and four years later, I switched toFats Waller. He was the one who turned me on to solo piano — I didn’t realize at first, but that was my temperament, rather than playing organ in a band. So Fats was probably my biggest inspiration overall.

I’m not really familiar with pop after 1971 — that was the point when I said that I’ve got to get back to 1929. About ninety-nine percent of what I play comes from the era between 1920 and 1970.

Do you ever feel like you’re a bit out of your time; like you should have been a silent movie accompanist, or playing barrelhouse piano in a saloon? 

I wish I would have been born in 1900! I would have been playing stride piano. Fats in his younger days played in theaters; Basie too. It makes you want to do your own thing.

Finish this thought: a lot of people might be surprised to learn that George Winston listens to…

Appalachian fiddle tunes! Most of my listening is in that area these days, even though I’m not a fiddler. I check ‘em out on iTunes, and I play ‘em on a harmonica.

Fiddlers are like singers, in that they all have their own sound. But there were no fiddle tunes recorded prior to 1921, so you just have to guess what the music sounded like — the different kinds of bowing, the resin, the strings…

You can actually pick up on those things by listening?

That’s what I do — just noticing things.

Well, you’ve gone out in public and played guitar or harmonica every now and then, so do you think you’ll be performing on fiddle any time soon?

No, I’m just listening and playing along for now, just fooling around with it. We all try to work hard at things and master them, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for fooling around. Lying in a hammock, daydreaming — that’s when your best ideas can come to you. Of course, too much fooling around and you’ll never get anything done. There’s a healthy balance between discipline and fooling around.

I want to mention also that we always invite a local food bank to be part of each concert, and we encourage people to bring food items when they come to the show.

And, despite what you mentioned about this tour not being completely about the Gulf Coast album, there is a continued focus upon New Orleans here, both as a musical theme and as a cause?

My main piano inspiration has been from New Orleans — Professor LonghairDr. JohnAllen Toussaint — so it’s something that matters to me a lot. I mean, eighty percent of a city — that’s a big thing to lose. And the people down there just want to get the word out; they want to let everyone know that we’re back, we’re open for business  — don’t forget us.