“If It’s Going to Rain, I Grab an Umbrella” – Pianist George Winston Talks Creativity, Patience
“Hang on, let me turn this thing off,” says piano master George Winston. Winston is calling from somewhere in Arizona on the eve of a concert tour and wrangling with an unruly GPS device that belches intermittent driving directions between the musician’s thoughtful, well-tempered sentences. Ostensibly a conversation about his latest release, Spring Carousel, we find time to discuss his love a variety of music (including Frank Zappa and The Doors) as well as his undying appreciation of legendary guitarist John Fahey.
Spring Carousel features 15 new compositions that the venerable pianist wrote while recovering from a bone marrow transplant at the City of Hope facility in Duarte, California and serves as a benefit album for the non-profit organization. A man possessed with an enviably positive disposition, Winston doesn’t dwell on the illness that could have killed him. Still, a review of the events that led to the LP’s arrival offers insight to his determination and the fullness of his recovery.
In September, 2012 Winston found himself almost unable to complete the second half of a concert in Sand Point, Idaho. He retreated to his dressing room after playing the final notes but felt increasingly worse. After being taken to a local hospital, he was soon diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS). The disease presents with few symptoms, leaving those afflicted with it in states of fatigue or wondering why they’ve become prone to infections. As with any cancer, the patient’s prognosis is dependent on a number of factors and in Winston’s case the bone marrow transplant, which happened within two months of his diagnosis, was the factor that ultimately saved his life.
By early 2013 he was making nightly visits to City of Hope’s auditorium and playing piano there, planting the seeds for the material that would eventually populate Spring Carousel. He emerged with nearly 60 pieces, shaping and re-shaping those until he found the 15 that comprise the new album, his first full-length effort since 2012.
Inspired by the movement of the planets, stars, and galaxies—as well as the music of Steve Reich and Howard Blake’s “The Snowman’s Music Box Dance”—this new music emerged in three distinct forms: carousels, up-tempo tunes and ballads. The material retains many of Winston’s classic melodic sensibilities while also presenting the portrait of an artist with plenty of compositional fire and ambition left nearly 45 years after releasing his first recordings.
“Music is kind of like the weather,” he says as he begins recalling the circumstances under which his latest pieces were born. “I don’t control it. I watch it. If it’s raining, I grab an umbrella. Music always tells me what to do and then I do it. It always tells me what to play. That doesn’t mean I can. If I can’t, then I have to work at it.”
It will probably come as little surprise that Winston thinks of his albums as having thematic links. His tenure on the Windham Hill label, spanning 1980 to 1999, saw him release a series of recordings that explored the nature and moods of the seasons, including the triple platinum 1982 recording December. Plains (1999) and Forest (1994) are but two of his works that evoke specific geographical locations.
He speaks of compiling the material like a man who is fitting together pieces of a puzzle. With individual parts scattered here and there, he searches for organization, not as much determining where they belong but guiding them to their rightful places. Slowly, one tune reveals itself as an opener, another a closer or midway point on the journey. The others fall in quickly behind.
“It’s kind of like doing a soundtrack for a film but there’s no film,” he says. “The music is the story.”
The process by which the narrative is shaped can be time-consuming, perhaps accounting for Winston’s tendency not to rush out new recordings. A survey of his discography reveals an eight-year gap between his debut, Ballads and Blues 1972 and 1980’s Autumn and nearly a decade between December and its follow-up, 1991’s Summer. “You have to get away and think about it and sometimes not think about,” he offers. “Sometimes I realize that what I’ve been working on won’t be an album. That’s OK too. I have things that I’ve shelved and said, ‘Ah, not really. Nice try.’”
Often, he says, he might have upwards of eight different projects in mind. “It’s kind of like growing a garden. You put some time and attention into them all, they grow themselves a little, and then, all of sudden, there’s one that really takes off.” He points to Spring Carousel as an example: gor a time, he had considered releasing it after his third volume of pieces penned by fellow pianist Vince Guaraldi (known for his work on the animated version of Peanuts). “I decided I’d hold off on that and probably put it out next year, not have too much out at once,” Winston says.
He adds that there are often periods of time when he does little to no writing at all. “Those are the times when I think the subconscious is doing a lot of work”, he notes. “I wait and then something will pop out. I might say, ‘Whoa, where’d that come from?’ But it’s probably been there for a while. But I’m a big believer that the longer you take, the better it’s going to be, generally.”
One of the pieces that has had the longest gestation period in the Winston discography is his 2002 tribute to The Doors, Night Divides the Day. The Los Angeles quartet’s influence on his work may come as a surprise to some who consider Winston’s work as being well-embedded in the folk instrumental genre but the pianist points out that the group’s keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, held great influence over him.
“It took me from 1967 to 2002 to do that record,” he says. “I’ve been working on a second volume but those songs are hard. I started playing organ in 1967 after I heard them, then I heard Fats Waller four years later and switched to solo piano. But The Doors are real roots for me. Then, when Jim Morrison died, I said, ‘No more Doors. No more rock for me, I’m rocked out.’ I went back to 1928. But before The Doors I was very content to play the record player.”
His dive into the music of blues and the sounds of New Orleans is another well-established thread in his music and is evident on Spring Carousel “Fess’ Carousels (Carousels 12 & 14)” provides a nod to another of his heroes, Professor Longhair (who earned the nickname “Fess” during his storied life) and one can detect dashes of New Orleans legend James Booker in the piece “Ms Mystery 3”.
He covered Booker’s “Pixie” on the 2006 effort Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit , alongside pieces from Dr. John and Henry Butler. (A second volume of Gulf Coast Blues appeared in 2012.) The line between the works of those players and composers may be easier to detect that some of his other musical influences, though. Winston makes no secret of his appreciation from the music of Frank Zappa, whose “Little House I Used to Live In” appeared on the Montana: A Love Story LP in 2004.
“I wanted to cover the whole Hot Rats album,” Winston says, pointing to the mustachioed maestro’s jazz-drenched LP from 1969, notable for its inclusion of “Peaches En Regalia”. “Frank’s music is just too hard. There’s nothing of his that I don’t want to play but it’s not quite solo piano. Almost but not close enough. It’s like in basketball: almost a basket is not two points.”
He adds that sometimes, though, finding the song can involve changing his perspective about the setting it has to appear in. “The Doors’ “Touch Me’ was like that. It took me a long time to figure out that I could do it as a ballad: slow it down, get rid of the saxophone solo at the end. It worked. Sometimes you have to wait for it to come, it might not come. Then again, there’s always the future. Something that hasn’t come for 20 years might happen in a minute.”
With a wealth of touring scheduled for 2017 and a variety of projects always in the works, Winston remains upbeat about the future. He is also well-aware of his past, one that began in 1972 when guitarist John Fahey signed him to the Takoma label. Fahey, who dubbed his rural-influenced brand of music American Primitive, was a jokester and scholar who sometimes misdirected those searching for meaning in his work but who was adept at recognizing formidable talents in others. Winston’s appreciation for his mentor remains strong to this day.
“Without John I wouldn’t be anything,” Winston points out. “Who was going to record a solo piano player in 1972? But when I encountered his music, before I met him, it struck me that he was doing everything that I wanted to do: He was playing solo instrumental music and recording other solo instrumental players. I didn’t know it could be done. It’s like the story about Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile: Once he did, others followed. When you see a mentor do something like what John did, you know that you still have to put the work in but at least you know it can be done.”
Winston continues to find inspiration in the music of others and the seasons and, he says, among his friends in the feline world. A notorious cat lover with over 400 whiskered friends across the country, he says that Spring Carousel‘s “Pixie #13 in C (Gobajie – A Foggy Day)” draws its source material from both James Booker and a four-legged pal named Gobajie. Given the musician’s tendency to wait for music to find its way to him and his appreciation for a more relaxed, contemplative life, the bond he has toward these animals seems fitting.
“I think everything comes from cats,” he says. “If I had to do it over again, I would be a cat man. There’s no question. And they’re a gateway. Really, all living beings are just cats in another form. How do I feel about them? Don’t I love them too?”
With that, our time winds down as Winston’s GPS announces the next turn on the roadway, another path that will no doubt lead him through bends and turns before he patiently arrives at his next stop and receives the place as it is. What else would he do?