A Conversation with George Winston – HuffPost 11.10.14
Mike Ragogna: George, your last album, Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2 put a spotlight on Louisiana’s Wetlands. But both Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 1& 2 are not only are tied together musically, but their proceeds benefit specific causes. Can you go into that?
George Winston: Gulf 1 was directly a Katrina benefit, helping those organizations rebuild. But yes, Gulf 2 is because of the oil spill, a voice for the wetlands in particular.
MR: And they’re both the aftermath of environmental disasters or challenges.
GW: Yeah. There are actually two more volumes that are almost done, they’ll come out sometime soon. They’re not quite done, but there are certainly other organizations to help there even without a disaster. Basically, the common ground is helping people rebuild and return. That’s going to be going on for a long time. The wetlands thing was a crisis before, but the oil spill tripled it. I’ll see who those are going to benefit, but there’s definitely two more. My main inspirations for playing are the New Orleans rhythm blues pianists, particularly Professor Longhair, James Booker and Henry Butler. Also Jon Cleary, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint. Songs I put together or songs by some of those composers, those are things that seem to fit together to make a musical statement. The music has to make a musical statement. All good intentions, but you’ve got to have the thought. Otherwise, it’s just silly. These albums would’ve happened anyway to benefit something sometime. Ever since I started listening to Professor Longhair in 1979 that’s been my main inspiration for piano; the New Orleans rhythm & blues players. In fact I think of the piano in terms of James Booker’s piano language, kind of like you think in English. Without even thinking about it, I say, “Okay, which James Booker thing to do I do for this song?” Some songs will be in the folk style I came up with in 1971, the melodic style I’m best known for.
MR: So in a lot of respects, this is like giving back to your creative source?
GW: Yeah, the source for me and for so many other things. New Orleans rhythm & blues, before that New Orleans jazz. It’s kind of the cradle of civilization for a lot of the culture of the country and the continent. Even Caribbean musicians take influence from what they’ve heard on the radio. Everybody inspires each other. Professor Longhair had a Caribbean feeling to his playing–what they call the clave. [hums beat] For the beat chart: one, two and four. It’s such a common thing in Latin music. Cultures influence each other with more travel and radio and now the web and everything. But yeah, I wouldn’t even be playing the piano without the New Orleans pianists. I quit playing ’77, I was frustrated because I couldn’t sound like Fats Waller–Not realizing that nobody else has been able to except Art Tatum at times. From my hearing, nobody got quite that incredible thing that Fats Waller got, least of all me. There have certainly been great stride players but I wanted that Fats Waller sound. Like if you’re into pre-war country blues you might want that Lonnie Johnson sound. Well, forget it. [laughs] It was just frustrating. I quit, and then I heard Professor Longhair’s recordings in ’79 and I said, “I’ve got to start playing again.” I did the Autumn record in 1980 and I’ve been touring ever since. So professor Longhair started the whole thing again. Well, let me go back. The Doors started the whole thing for me in early ’67 when I got their first album just because it said they had an organ. I’d never heard of them. They weren’t known yet outside of a little bit of LA. They started the whole thing for me, “I’ve got to get an organ and play in a band, I just can’t play the record player only anymore. Then I heard Fats Waller in ’71 and I said, “Nope, solo piano, not organ in a band.” One of those thirty second epiphanies. Then I quit in ’77 because I couldn’t sound like Fats. Art Tatum could get that but he had a very different style. I’m still trying to get to Fats. I still play stride piano but it’s not the primary thing anymore like New Orleans R&B is for me.
Anyway, I heard Professor Longhair in ’79, started playing again. In ’82 I heard James Booker and said, “Now, that’s the way to play piano.” That kind of proved out to be true over time because it only took me six years to really figure out what to do with the James Booker thing. Professor Longhair it took thirty-four. In 2013, I finally came to terms with what to do with his influence. All New Orleans pianists go through that. They hear one of the greats and they say, “I’ve got to do something.” You have to come to terms, because if you sound like him it doesn’t sound right. For me at least. It’s like talking in somebody else’s voice. But if you don’t sound like them, it doesn’t sound right either. “What do I do? I’ve got to do something, I can’t just play the record player.” Finally, it took as long as it took. Basically, what I do is sometimes I have the Professor Longhair left hand, sometimes I have the James Booker left hand, and occasionally the Henry Butler left hand. It took me twenty two years to come to terms with what I’m doing with Henry Butler’s inspiration and influence. Fortunately things can happen concurrently, like when you grow a garden you can plant a hundred plants. You don’t have to just plant one. That’s the whole story, have a good day. [laughs]
MR: Sweet! George, you mentioned many artists, but what about Vince Guaraldi? You’ve recorded two albums of his compositions.
GW: And I’m finishing a third one!
MR: To me, though you’ve recorded Vince’s songs, he can’t be heard as clearly in your music as other influences you mentioned.
GW: When he has a jazz break in the middle of a song, I play an R&B break. But the three composers that I’ve tried to do every song by–and some haven’t worked–are The Doors, Professor Longhair and him. There is going to be another Doors volume, by the way. With The Doors it’s not direct musical licks, much, it’s more to play the songs. With Vince it’s the same thing. All three of them have been role models for me. When I put a song together I say, “Is this is a good song like a Vince Guaraldi song?” and I wake up the next morning and I say, “Nope! It’s not quite there.” I don’t really have the temperament of a composer. Things just happen kind of by accident every so often and I go, “Okay, that seems to say what I’m wanting to say.” The more time goes on the more I exhaust all music. If I want to say something I put together is going to express that because I’ve gone through Randy Newman and Laura Nyro and Vince Guaraldi and The Doors and Professor Longhair and James Booker, Henry Butler, Allen Toussaint, many many many times and I’ve realized, “Well, I’ve exhausted for me what I can play as a solo on piano.” Very few pieces I play were originally solo piano pieces. Maybe five ever. They were more like band pieces, vocal pieces, just songs that we all like. When I like a song I tend to want to play it, and that doesn’t always work. A lot of times, you just need the vocal, you just need the drums, no matter what I do it’s just not a piano piece.
But those three composers have been inspirational to me because when I’ve got a song and it’s really good, I say, “It’s really good like a Vince Guaraldi piece” and then it stays around. I’ve wanted to play every single one of their songs. With most composers it’s just one or two. For Sam Cooke, I do four, Frank Zappa, I do two. It’s not that they aren’t fantastic pieces, it’s just got to sound like it’s a piano piece. If somebody was to hear the version I did of “Light My Fire,” it needs to make them say, “Oh, that’s a nice piano piece,” and then I can explain it. If it’s a direct transcription you kind of get the muzak thing on the elevator. “Well, it’s all clever what I went and did but it doesn’t really live and breathe.” It has to sound like a piano piece. For example, The Doors, Professor Longhair and Vince Guaraldi were also inspirational to me because they were great interpreters. When The Doors did “Backdoor Man” on that first album, it sounded like a Doors song, it didn’t sound like a Willie Dixon song. Or when they did the Alabama song “Whiskey Bar,” it didn’t sound like Alabama, it sounded like a Doors song. I’d sure like to get to that point someday. I’m still working on it. There are songs I thought were Vince Guaraldi’s compositions that are really somebody else’s. What a great interpreter he is.
MR: Let’s get to George Winston who, at this point, also has influenced a lot of artists. Have you analyzed George Winston’s style yet?
GW: Well, yeah. Like I said, the stride style comes a lot from Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. I kind of got it how I want to do it at this point, and the same thing with New Orleans R&B, but as far as the folk style I’m known for, I came up with that in 1971 when Fats Waller’s recordings inspired me to play piano instead of Organ. I wanted something complimentary to the hot stuff. I always loved fingerpicking guitar but I wasn’t playing guitar yet. So I said, “Okay, you’ve got folk guitar, this is folk piano.” This is folk piano because it’s melodic, it’s simpler, I like the way the notes ring out. I didn’t learn anything from anybody for that style, it’s just something the piano gave me, and hearing guitars, John Fahey for one. He wound up producing my first record a year later in 1972. But yeah, I do know what that style is. It’s basically what you call diatonic, staying in the scale of the key, staying in the key itself and letting notes ring out. I love the way that piano notes ring out, better than organ or strings or anything. It’s kind of a simpler style. Those are kind of the four elements.
MR: Yeah. When you look at your albums, do you see the direction of your style coming full circle?
GW: Yeah. The first album had two stride pieces and some uptempo. That was the best ten tunes I had at the time. Then when I started doing the autumn record eight years later I said, “I want these records to just say one thing.” Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, like The Doors album. It’s like one song with eleven parts. I hadn’t quite come to that in ’72, but that’s where I am to this day. I want to stay right within a theme. It’s kind fo like if you were doing a soundtrack but there’s no film. I was doing some R&B back then but later it became much more prominent. Those gulf albums do have some of the folk and R&B and stride on parts of them but it’s kind of like, “What’s the theme? What songs work together musically to fit with each other?” It can take a long, long time. It can take years and years and years to get it the best that I can get it. Fortunately, I’m working on a lot of them at the same time slowly.
All the songs on the Vince Guaraldi volume three are recorded, now I just have to figure out what songs are on, which songs are out, and what’s the order. I always have a part one and part two. That came from the LP days. Concerts I play always have two halves. Basketball has two halves, I used to play basketball. I’m really into this part one and part two thing. Even if I have a single CD I still leave a little more time to make a statement between what’s part one and part two. The influences are coming more together over time. There’s a bunch more in the future that I’m working on at the same time. My main endeavor is live playing. To me, that’s the thing I think of. Records are something I think of as second on the list. Some songs are just for records, not for concerts. Some songs might be just playing for a friend. Some songs might be for a funeral. Some songs I might play for somebody in a hospital on my guitar. The songs will tell me where they go. They’re kind of like cats. They just do what they want to do, not what I tell them.
MR: Is that what the creative process is like for you? Do you follow the cat?
GW: Yep, and I love cats more than anything so that’s an analogy that just makes me happy to think of. It’s just, “What does the music want?” “This song doesn’t want to be played at a concert. It just doesn’t want to,” and I go, “I understand.” “This song wants to be on the record, it wants to be the last song on part one,” and I go, “Okay.” It’s not really an intellectual process, it’s more just slowly realizing what’s going on and making the personal statement. What’s true for me isn’t going to be true for someone else necessarily. What I want to do is just make the statement the best I can. As a listener, I do my thing with what I hear, so the listener will do whatever they do if anything with whatever I’m doing. The listeners are sovereign citizens. Whatever opinion you have, it’s the right one. If you don’t like what I do, either I could’ve played it better or what do you like?
MR: There was something about your classic album Autumn that, at the time that it came out, touched many. I would say you, through that album, put Windham Hill on the map. Some people say it was William Ackerman but I believe it was Winston.
GW: And Alex de Grassi too.
MR: Of course, and there were plenty of other successful artists with you on that label like Shadowfax and Nightnoise, Liz Story…
GW: It was basically Will Ackerman, Robbie Basho and Alex de Grassi on the guitar label and I knew them because I was trying to get the Slack Key Guitars recorded. Later, I started my own label and did that, but I just said, “Wow, this is a great guitar label,” and I approached them. Somebody had heard the old record that I did on Tacoma, Ballads & Blues and, in fact, had played it on his college radio show. They approached me and said, “Are you interested?” and I slowly did get interested. It took a while, because really my main thing is recording other people, people that have influenced me but are not being recorded, and trying to get them recorded. I would say that’s number one on my list. As a player I understand a lot of what they’re going through. I understand what they’re going through in the studio. I understand, this is hard. In the studio you get more chances, but it’s hard. People are going to hear this one thing over and over exactly the same way. That doesn’t occur naturally in music. Even if you’re trying to play it the same way it comes out a little different every time. It’s a tough thing. The microphones are close–nobody listens to a guitar from one foot away. It’s tough.
MR: How did it work with you and the artists?
GW: Well, the artists have final say, like I do on all of mine. I want to be able to communicate any idea and they can reject them all, but I want to be able to say them. I say that in the beginning of the whole thing, I say, “About one out of ten things I suggest are going to be good. The other nine, no, they aren’t going to quite fit you but I want to be able to say it, because I’m looking for that one out of ten where you go, ‘You know, that’s a good idea.'”
MR: But what about when you’re recording your own material? How do you treat yourself in the studio?
GW: Well I’ve worked with the same co-producers for many years. If we all like it, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. If one of those two don’t like it then I don’t really trust it. If I like it and one of the two others don’t we’ve got to do it again. You know how we all look at group pictures and don’t like ourselves but we like everybody else? Listen to it and then listen to it a week later, maybe even six months later. “Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it does live and breathe,” if a take lives and breathes and fits with the other songs on a certain project then it gets used. Even if it’s not how I normally play it or even if I add things later and then say, “Well, I still like that primitive, older version, it still kind of fits,” it has to live and breathe. You know those coffee table books with the hummingbirds? Maybe a photographer takes a hundred pictures to get the one with the hummingbird’s beak in the flower. You just keep recording until you get one that lives and breathes. It’s tough when you’re playing because I go in and listen and I go, “I thought I was playing it fast but it’s really kind of slow,” or I’ll go and listen and say, “Eh, too many notes, too much stuff.” One time, the engineer came in and said, “Come in and listen to that,” and I said, “Really? I didn’t feel a thing when I played it, there’s nothing there, absolutely nothing.” I came in and listened and I went, “Is that the one I just did? This says something, but I sure didn’t feel it when I played it.” It’s hard to be objective, but over time you can get some objectivity.
MR: It might be cool to dig up some of those old outtakes and listen again for that “life.” I think part of that unrecognized worth probably comes from how your style is like improvisation within a structure.
GW: That’s true. Some songs are fifty percent improvised, some are ten percent, a few are none, but that is true, I like and work best with a defined structure. I have done short improvs not knowing what I was going to play. It used to be one out of ten were good, now about nine out of ten are good. Sometimes my engineer would say, “Okay, before you go home, just improvise something,” and I’ll go, “Uh, well, okay, I don’t know what I’m going to do at all.” They usually kind of flow in short pieces and some of them are kind of pretty good and might fit someplace, but as far as the old out takes, yes, I do go back and listen and there can be things that wind up being bonus tracks. I know what you’re saying, I do do that.
MR: George, you’re partly credited with the creation of what became “New Age” music with your Autumn album and I guess Windham Hill in general.
GW: Well, I have nothing to do with that, I must say. That’s just kind of a misnomer somebody called impressionism I guess. It’s got nothing to do with anything philosophical or spiritual or nothing. I just play. It’s inspired by the seasons and topographies. If you want to call that spiritual, fine, but I call it material. [laughs] On the other hand, how did the Earth have the genius to create cats? How did it do that?
MR: [laughs] Cats know everything, they’re just not telling.
GW: I’ve learned more from cats than I could ever even communicate about. James Booker had a song called “Pixie” that I recorded on Gulf 1 and I’ve got thirteen other “Pixies” I’ve put together that are influenced by James Booker and by Gobajie, a cat that had me. She had a real chirpy meow, she didn’t purr externally but she purred internally, so when she meowed the purr would be vibrating through it. Sometimes I’m plyaing a lot of licks and I go, “No, no, no, just chirp.” She became very much part of my right hand. “Pixie” is based on James Booker’s “Pixie,” a medium tempo song based ona blues progression and played with the left hand more in the middle of the piano. There’s not a lot of dynamics, it just kind of says it within this range. That’s hwat I define a “Pixie” as, based on James Booker’s, first. Somehow I just came up with other because of James Booker–Who I never met or anything–and Gobajie. G-O-B-A-J-I-E, because when I met her I just looked at her and went, “Gobajie.” That just came out of my mouth.
MR: Beyond inspiration, beyond your heroes, beyond the cat, where does your creativity come from?
GW: From growing up in Montana with the seasons and the topographies. There were four distinct ways of living. They say in the old flamenco guitar traditions that you listen for twenty, practice for twenty, accompany dancers for twenty and when you’re sixty you’re ready to be a solo guitar player. Loosely. I looked back and I said I’ve had the seasons and topographies of Montana for twelve years, I listened to music for six, and then organ for four and piano since then. I look back and I say, “Yeah, those stages are a little bit like that conccept.” Everything I play I regard as a song of a season, even if the original composer didn’t intend it. That’s the picture I get. It’s like two sides of the same coin. A season has to be in a place, a place has to be in a season. That’s what comes to me without thinking. That’s where the reason comes from. If I was a photographer I’d do photo books, “Hey, let’s do the four seasons in this one place,” or “Let’s do New England in the fall and Colorado in the spring.” I would say that’s the inspiration and then the influences helped me find the languages. I’ve claled my style folk, and then they called it jazz and other names, but it really is folk piano. It’s like folk songs. It’s certainly not jazz. When I played organ I was mainly jazz oriented, but when I started playing piano I went, “You know, mainstream jazz, modern jazz, post World War II jazz, bebop, whatever you want to call it just doesn’t fit me on the piano.” So it became folk, stride and R&B. I wouldn’t say I was a great organ player, but that was my orientation to modern jazz. I knew the Autumn record wasn’t jazz, because I used to play jazz.
MR: And you completed the picture with those open landscape album covers.
GW: The cover, to me, is like one of the songs. Even when casettes came out, even to this day with iTunes the cover still needs to make an artistic statement, and that can take months to find something that works. I’m coming up with a new record right now by the way; three songs will be on iTunes very soon as a preview EP. It’s called Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit. So it’s a benefit record.
MR: And right from the beginning, you’ve asked people to bring canned goods to your concerts to contribute to social causes.
GW: Yeah, and we donate the proceeds from the merchandise and sometimes the concerts to the food banks. It’s to help out, and to also give the food bank some visibility because these are the people that are really doing the work. I’ve talked about that before 2008, too. There’s always been somebody out on their luck. I’ve eaten at soup kitchens a couple of times myself. I only had to do it twice, but I just said, “If I can ever help in this way I want to be able to do it. I’m so glad that these places were here so I could get a couple meals,” back in the old hitch hiking days and that kind of thing. After I started touring I started asking people to bring non-perishable items if they can, and again CD sales go to the food bank. If somebody wants to contribute to something but they’re not sure where, they can say, “Oh yeah, I remember that food bank from that concert ad, I’ll do there.” I picked food because it’s kind of the bottom line. If you’re down on your luck, you can sleep in your car or a sleeping bag under a bridge. You can get water from a fountain. But where legally are you going to get food? Almost every place you could get food, you’d have to steal it, from a store or even a farm. If somebody can get a meal, they can kind of pick themselves up. I just realized that in my concept, food is the bottom line.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
GW: I lucked into that. I have no concept of what the business is because I was just approaching the Windham Hill people as somebody that wanted to get guitarists recorded. I would say see what the music wants, listen to your teachers and influences but listen to yourself too. Water seeks the lowest level, there’s always some place to play. If I didn’t have a chance to play concerts then I’d play at senior centers, I’d play on a park bench. There’s always some place you can find to play and have the appropriate songs for. Maybe playing at a restaurant. Maybe you’d rather not play while people are eating, but then you could develop songs that are perfect for people eating. Maybe you wouldn’t play a concert where everybody was staring at you. One of my biggest influences was Ted Greene, the guitarist. He didn’t want to play with people staring at him, he only wanted to play while people were eating. He wanted to be the background. I went to play one time at somebody’s wedding and I expected people to be dancing, but it was a whole room of people eating. So I’m sitting down and I think, “Okay, let’s see… Oh! Vince Guaraldi! Okay!” Luckily I was ready and I was able to say, “What’s happening here? What music fits with this?”
Life itself is a film maybe, kind of. “Here I am playing, what fits me as a person? What fits the listener?” It’s two sides of the same coin, like seasons and topographies. A player and a listener is two sides of the same coin. I would not play if there wasn’t a listener. I don’t play for my own enjoyment. It’s not physically pleasurable to play. It’s not fun. It’s not not fun, either, it’s more like, “This is what I gotta go to practice and get these songs together so when I’m playing for a person or people I can say musically what I want to say. As long as I really want to play the song I’m very happy to accomodate myself to whatever situation I’m in, but my deal with the music is that I will only play what songs I want to play. I’m not even capable of playing songs I don’t want to play. I almost get mentally nauseous. Some people play six nights a week at a club. I admire that. I couldn’t do it. Then I talk to somebody who says, “Yeah, you tour for one month, two months, four months, I couldn’t do that,” and I go, “Well for me that’s home. I can’t do what you do.” I’m very happy to accommodate every situation that I’m in as long as the music fits the situation I’m in.
Ninety-nine percent of the people at my concerts are there because of records. They’re not there because, “Oh, there’s a piano player in town and nothing else to do.” There’s a hundred other things to do. So I play things that I still play from the records and new things. I have two shows, the wummer show and the winter show and I alternate all the time. If I play the summer show and the winter show in a town, by the time I get back to the summer show things have changed. I try to pay attention to who I’m playing for as well as paying attention to myself. If somebody wants me to play a song that I don’t play, I’m not going to play it. I can’t or won’t or whatever. It’s like, “Where can we come to a happy meeting?” Maybe I want to play “Saints Go Marching In” for fifty minutes, maybe they want to hear the whole December record. Okay, we can reach a happy medium here.
MR: You poll the audience? I’m kidding, of course…
GW: No, I just realized they’re there because of the records. If a song keep changes it usually ends up getting played, but if a song stops changing then it doesn’t get played anymore. It’s kind of like a cat or a plant. If a plant keeps changing, it’s alive, but if it doesn’t, it isn’t.
MR: That really makes sense, nice.
GW: When I hear somebody like Henry Butler play I don’t even want them to think about what I’m thinking about; I want to hear where they’re coming from. But maybe not every listener is that way, and that’s fine. If I went to hear Henry Butler and he didn’t play a single thing on his records I’d be glad because I could say, “Now I get to hear all this new stuff.” But that’s probably not the average listener. It’s like everybody in life. We’re all fightting gravity and entropy and death. Every living being is fighting that, whether it’s a blade of grass or a person or a grasshopper or a cat. We’re all relating to other human beings, so it’s important to be balanced. Now what does everybody else want? We all have relationships with other living beings, how can we uplift them and not just ourselves? It’s like in the airplane where they say, “Put on your seatbelt first and then the child’s.” So yeah, take care of yourself, but how can you help somebody else? I’ve been given so much I want to help as much as I can. We all do. You can never do enough, but we’re all trying to do something. That’s how a lot of things get done. We as individual people say, “Hey, I want to help out there.” How much help have we all gotten? I couldn’t even give back a hundredth of what I’ve been given. I’m definitely the luckiest guy on the planet.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne