Satirist Tom Lehrer once said, “Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.”
For George Winston, his approach has been one of total immersion and a laser-focus on his chosen instrument dating back to 1972, when he forsake playing the organ after getting turned on to the stride piano stylings of Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. Winston never looked back and went on to become a self-described “rural folk pianist,” more than happy to play live, periodically record and raise money for charities at seemingly every turn.
Having made his recording debut with “Ballads and Blues 1972” on the Takoma Records imprint of fellow musical iconoclast John Fahey, it would be another eight years before he entered the studio to make “Autumn,” his Windham Hill Records debut for label owner Will Ackerman. And while this wound up being the inaugural release for this seminal New Age label, it also wound up saddling Winston with the nickname, “Father of New Age,” a tag he’s quite happy to disavow.
“I have nothing to do with that and I have a vasectomy anyway. That’s a misnomer. I have nothing to do with anything spiritual. I just play the song,” Winston explained with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “It’s kind of like if someone called you Jim and it’s not your name. I don’t know where that came from. I don’t even know what that even is. I’m sure there’s good stuff everywhere but I have no clue what it even is or where it even came from.”
For Winston, simplicity has always been the key to a career in which he’s used his passions and inspirations to forge his creative path, whether it’s the weather patterns of his native Montana, cats, slack-key guitar, Vince Guaraldi, the Doors or the music and culture of New Orleans.
Winston is also quick to throw his efforts behind numerous charitable causes. Proceeds for CDs sold at his shows go to local food kitchens and concert attendees are always encouraged to bring canned food to donate to the aforementioned food pantries. There are also a string of benefit albums Winston has recorded that helped out those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks (“Remembrance — A Memorial Benefit”), victims of Hurricane Katrina (“Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit”) and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (“Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2: A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit”).
And while some may view his unerring willingness to throw his efforts behind various charitable causes as being slightly New Agey, Winston is rather nonchalant about why he chooses to help out in this manner.
“My job is to try and clean up a mess after it happens. I’m not really a changer or preventer. Stuff happens and I try to do something like a benefit to help out. That’s my area,” he said.
Winston’s latest release is the three-song “Spring Carousel — A Cancer Research Benefit” that was released as an EP earlier this year. Available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play, 100 percent of his artist royalties will go to benefit cancer research. The latest effort strikes close to home because Winston was working on this project after being diagnosed with having a low platelet count. Having already survived thyroid and skin cancer, he flew to California-based City of Hope, a private, not-for-profit clinical research/medical treatment/graduate medical school for a bone marrow transplant. Not only was he successfully treated, Winston got musically inspired.
“It was great being there. It was a bone marrow transplant, which is not surgical. I don’t know if it’s harder or easier but it doesn’t involve surgery. I think I had it super-easy compared to a lot of people,” Winston observed. “I’m sure it was harder than I remember. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the music good besides drugs or drinking. I had treatment at City Hope in 2013.
I was recovering and staying close by. They have a village, so then you can just walk to your doctor’s appointment. It’s like their hotel, so I was just at the piano every night and these songs just kind of emerged. That whole experience took place on their grounds, in their lecture room on their piano. It was very serendipitous.”
For this current tour, Winston is playing what he calls a “winter show,” which will feature him playing solo on his trademark nine-foot Steinway. From there, Winston will play fall and winter-themed songs mixed with Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” pieces with stride piano, folk piano and New Orleans-influenced music. Or as he puts it, “kind of a mixture of where I’m coming from musically.”
Aside from the plan to release a full-length 2-CD version of the “Spring Carousel” EP, Winston has loose plans to eventually do a follow-up to 2002’s “Night Divides the Day — The Music of the Doors” and a long-planned project of songs either written by or inspired by New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair. But it’s about as close as he’ll get to actually planning anything, as Winston is of the mindset that inspiration comes at its own pace.
“If a song happens that’s original or a song of somebody’s to interpret, it’s all something that I notice. That’s serendipity but I’ve got to get the fingers going so that I’m able to play (it),” he said. “Some things take a long time. It’s really just like watching the weather. When it snows, we do certain things and when it rains, we do certain things. It’s kind of like reacting to what the music tells me what to do. It’s not an entity, but it’s like one. It’s of me but not of me. It’s one of those indefinable things. It is what it is or isn’t what it isn’t. It’s neither is nor is what it is or isn’t.”