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George Winston Interview: Taking It All In Stride

In our recent interview with George, we learned much about this unassuming artist.  Among them, we discovered that he has an intense passion for the New Orleans Jazz pianist, Professor Longhair.  We thought it would be appropriate to open our article with a quote from Allen Toussaint.  We thought George might approve of this.

“Black or white, local or out-of-town, they all had Longhair’s music in common. Just that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.”

Allen Toussaint

Interview:

We are speaking with Grammy winning pianist George Winston.   George is probably best known and loved for his folk style piano playing,   but he is also a very talented guitarist and a harmonica player.  His loyal fans have watched his style evolve through his self created melodic folk piano, tostride piano and New Orleans piano styles, and even into rock.  We are very pleased to be interviewing him today to learn more about his music and his career!

LBFH: Welcome George!

GW: Oh, great to be here Thomas!

LBFH: Your career in music began over 40 years ago.  When you look back over that time, what are some of the most satisfying aspects of your career, so far?

GW: Well, just the chance to play live for people, that’s the big one.  Also, studying music.   Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butlerespecially, but also Dr. John, Fats Waller, Allen Toussaint, you probably know him.

LBFH: Yeah, it’s great stuff

GW: Professor Long hair, I just love his songs so much, I can’t just sit there and listen to them.  In the past I would play his songs, but it just didn’t sound like him.  Time had to go by, you know, just practicing piano.  It’s kind of like a tree.  Part of having a tree grow is just letting time go by.   It’s 35 years; I’m finally just starting to see how to play his songs.

LBFH: You grew up in rural Montana, and have stated that the seasons and the natural landscapes around you were your main source of entertainment and maybe even spiritual inspiration.  From that remote setting, can you describe how you first broke into the mainstream?

GW: Yeah, the seasons are the main influence; they’re so drastic there, much like the East, I think even more so. They’ve got extreme winters in Montana.  But that’s kind of the biggest inspiration in playing.  When I was growing up, I liked instrumentals, especially organ.  Then I heard the Doorsand I started playing their songs.  I also played with a couple of bands for a while.  Then when I heard Fats Waller piano recordings from the 20’s and 30’s, I was inspired to switch to solo piano.  Right there on the spot!  So both of those, within 30 seconds or a minute, oh! I know what I want to do!  Then I recorded an album in 1972, Ballads and Blues.  But by 1977 I kind of got tired of it all and quit playing.  There wasn’t much live stuff going on, I was living in L.A.  Then in 1979, I heard Professor Long Hair’s recordings from 1949 to 1953 on the Atlantic reissue album, New Orleans Piano.  That was another one of those “30 second” moments and I started to try to play – I’m Still trying to play, his songs.  Then in 1980 I recorded the Autumnrecord and there’s this ongoing line to just keep trying to play better.  Most songs I play are not solo piano songs; Professor Long Hair with a band, Doors, organ guitars, drum and vocals, Vince Guaraldi songs, with a band.  So having to work them into a solo piano piece, which is my voice, sometimes it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes they work out, sometimes they never do. Sometimes it takes a decade. But you know if you’re inspired by something you keep at it.  It’s not really disappointing it’s a process.

 

LBFH: While working with William Ackerman and the whole Windham Hillscene, was there a sense for you that there was a new emergence on the music scene, that sound that would come to be coined New Age?

GW: I didn’t have any sense of that.  You know, in the intro you mentioned “awards” To this day I have no awareness of these things.  There’s only two things that matter; the player and the listener.  To me, there’s absolutely nothing else.  I’m just so busy with this stuff there’s absolutely no consciousness of those other things.  I’m just aware of my own process.  In 1983, it got bigger than I was comfortable with, so I quit and was through with the whole thing and I stopped making records for nine years, but I still played live.  Everybody has their temperament, you know, when something doesn’t fit, you don’t go there.

LBFH: So you preferred to stay rooted more in your own music and creative process?

GW: Well I wanted things a little more “lower key”. You know, back then it was just too much attention.  I just kept playing, but nothing else. But that’s ok; I wasn’t ready to do another album anyway.  I didn’t do another record for nine years.  Records are like being pregnant.  You know, when it’s ready to come out it comes out.  It’s not something you can control.

LBFH: That’s quite an analogy!

GW: Whatever it takes it takes.  Sometimes it’s good to give songs a rest, not think about them for a while. Sometimes a decade will go by and I’ll use the ending from something older in a new song.  I don’t do that deliberately, sometimes you just drift into something else.  It’s kind of like daydreaming.

LBFH: You talk a lot about Professor Long Hair, you obviously admire him.  I have one album of his.

GW: Which one is it?  I have everything by him.

LBFH: It’s the one that opens with the song “In the night”

GW: Oh is that the one with the black cover, “New Orleans Piano

LBFH: Yes!

GW: That’s the one I head in 1979.  When I heard, “Hey Now, Baby” That’s what really got me big time!  It the kind of music that sounds like you can do it, sounds attainable, but then when you do they don’t sound so good,  You know it’s like trying to sing in somebody else’s voice. You have to find your own voice.
LBFH: What is folk style piano?

GW: The folk piano is something that I made up real quick.  When I heard Fats Waller, I was trying to play stride piano.  I wanted something opposite, something slow, and melodic almost like folk guitar and simple chords.  It’s a simpler style, playing more melodically. It’s an easier style.

LBFH: What prompted you to form your own record label, Dancing Cat

GW: In 1983, I wanted to record the Hawaiian slack key guitarists.

LBFH: Its beautiful music

GW:  So I started that and with quite a few guitarists.  We have around 39 albums so far.

LBFH:  Has that been well received?

GW: I don’t know (laughs) I think so but that depends on each listener.

LBFH: Taj Mahal did an album with Hawaiian/blues themes, sacred island

GW:  Oh yeah, the Hula Blues Band.  Taj spent some time on the island, now he’s back in the Bay area.

LBFH: Do you envision other kinds of world music releases on Dancing Cat Records?

GW: No, I think we’ll probably stick with the Slack Key Guitarists for now.  I’ve been focused on my own recordings.  But, I won’t record someone unless they are one of my inspirations.  I wouldn’t feel qualified.

LBFH: The catalog is focused right now on many Hawaiian Slack Key Guitarartists.  This is a beautiful music form.  Can you describe your passion and motivation to bring this music to the public?

GW:  So far it’s been a great experience, I feel like I know their language good enough now.  What I’ve learned to do is to watch the players, it adds a whole other dimension to the music that you wouldn’t get by just listening, like light and time…”  So much you would miss if you were on the phone or doing other paperwork.  Pay attention!  You learn so much from the artists as your producing them.  It’s important to really listen to the artists. In the production process, if I don’t like something but the other two do like it, then they’re probably right about it.  I don’t have that self consciousness when I’m recording my own stuff.   The other day I was in the studio and I was listening to something I recorded six or seven times, you know, and I thought I liked the last one.  The one ten years ago was better, that’s the one that had the life.

 

LBFH: You are primarily a solo performer, but can you tell us if you have ever been curious about extending your styles into a trio or quartet setting?

GW: No, never.  I’ll hear a band track, like the Doors and think “big”, but then I think it small and make it into a piano piece.  When you’re the only player, it becomes your song.  I have to make it my own voice.

LBFH: Have you ever been interested in electric forms of music?

GW: Well I did when I first started, it was organ and wah-wah pedals, reverb,  Leslie speakers and all that.  But then I heard fats Waller and went, “oh, go solo piano”, Not organ. I just changed again all in thirty seconds.

LBFH: You must do a lot of traveling for your performances.  What are some of your favorite places in the world and why?

GW: Its really everywhere.  It’s what happens when you play a concert.  There’s different energy in different places.

LBFH: When you’re not writing, producing or performing, what are some of the things that you enjoy for your own recreation?

GW: I like things around science, for example the rover on Mars, SETI,astronomy.  Just keeping in touch with the times.

 

LBFH: Many of our readers look to the interviews we present for career inspiration.  Can you describe for us what some of the daily responsibilities in running a record label are?

GW: I think somebody sometime said to me they wanted to pick my brain about starting a record label.  I had one word: “don’t”, unless you make sure that you really want to do it more than anything. You have to know your temperament.  My experience was that it was a ton of work. It’s not what you think!   It’s like having five families at once.  But there are also good things. There are other approaches too, like for example, helping people record.  I’ve done this as well.

There’s a lot to be said for nine to five jobs.  At the end of the day, you’re done.  I was a delivery driver in L.A.  I loved it!  If music hadn’t happened I would still be a driver.  Someone has to deliver, right?  You know, it’s not always about the money.  You have to do what you love.  So that’s my take on it.  Everybody’s different.

LBFH: What’s next for you, George?  Are there any new projects on the board?

GW: I’ve got some new recordings I’ve been working on.  Another Doors album. Also some volumes of Professor Longhair’s music.

LBFH: George I’d like to thank you so much for giving us some time, it’s been a true pleasure speaking with you and I know our readers will benefit from your words.

GW: Yeah, I looked at the site, it’s great.   There’s a good article about making careers in music.   A lot of people ask me about making albums.  I sort of happened into it.  I’ve cut and pasted your article link.  These days, everything is so much more user friendly.  In the old days it was much harder.  You had to have a lot of luck.  I guess you still do, but there’s more ways. Back then you had to know everything, where did the cardboard come from for the cover, how do I get the money to pay for studio time.

LBFH: And that’s the idea of Local Band.  As an artist, you have to be willing to think outside of the box and find alternative avenues for your music, which is ultimately your expression.  Nowadays you can use many tools like the internet and Skype and Drop box to exchange ideas and files.  It’s now possible to collaborate with other artists all over the world without ever getting on a plane.

GW:  Yeah, the idea is to capture the moment.  If that’s done using Skype and Drop Box, then great.  There will never be a substitute for being together in the same room, but it’s an alternative.  Younger people will have an easier time using this (technology), but may need to learn the skills of being together in the same room.  The opposite is that some people may need to learn how to use Skype and Drop Box.  The whole point is to capture the moment.

LBFH: Thanks, George!

GW: Take Care.

 
About the interviewer:

Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY.  He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to  professionals in  film and media industries.  He is  also the founding member of the  Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.

To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com

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About Thomas Mangano

Musician, Composer, Columnist

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