Originally published on Examiner.com: http://www.examiner.com/concert-photography-in-san-francisco/profile-and-photos-george-winston-at-the-freight-and-salvage-berkeley-ca
Recently, world-renown pianist George Winston treated the SF Bay Area to a magnificent performance. George is one of the nicest guys you would expect to be making a living as a recording and performing artist, and I was lucky enough to enjoy a delightful phone conversation and access to soundcheck during his recent visit to Berkeley, CA at the beautiful Freight & Salvage.
Preferring smaller intimate venues where an unmic’d piano stands alone on stage, George treated patrons of the newly renovated Freight and Salvage to a wondrous night of one of his “winter sets;” a mix of tunes from his own repertoire as well as classic songs from those of his mentors. We had a few moments to sit down, and I asked George some questions about his music, his life and career.
It was intriguing to me that in the early years of his music life, he didn’t set out to have a career in music, but diligently studied and played tunes from New Orleans jazz, blues and stride pianists out of pure love of the songs. His major influences growing up and in the early years were Professor Longhair, James Booker and Henry Butler. He feels he’s just now thoroughly understanding Professor Longhair’s style of piano playing, a lifelong dream of his.
I have always been a fan of George’s “Seasons” project – the series of albums he put out over a ten-year period (~1973-1983). It was no surprise to learn that his major inspiration for the seasons project drew from childhood memories and the influence of the seasons, topography and terrain on his life growing up in Montana. I got the sense from George that the series wasn’t entirely planned at the onset, but quickly became a long-term project, like most of his work. He wrote and recorded Autumn from 1973-79, December was recorded in 1973, Summer was a product of 1981, Winter was released in 1983 and Spring was a project from 1982-83.
I asked George about the moments and turning points that really stood out to him regarding his career in music. In the beginning, from 1961-67 he bought records, played them and loved simply enjoying music. The first step was being an avid music lover. When mentioning turning points in life, he lists 5 prominent memories:
- The first time he heard the Doors in 1967 lead him to desire to learn to play the organ
- Hearing Fats Waller in 1971 lead him to piano
- Discovering Professor Longhair’s music in 1979,
- James Booker in 1982, and
- Henry Butler in 1985 forever changed what he thought possible with studying and stylizing music in ways “I just knew I wanted to do.”
George goes on to mention how he typically enjoys playing prominent composers music, more so than he feels he plays “like them.”
I knew I was getting sage advice when George said “I didn’t know what it was going to be, I just knew I wanted to do it.” Logistics, how to get there, etc. weren’t part of “the plan” per se, just getting out there and doing it was.
He was a delivery man until 1980, then one day just decided to quit his job and do it. George would find odd jobs to make ends meet while he got his full-time music gig off the ground. When looking at the whole music career, he jokes about if he would do it again and quips with a chuckle: “not if I knew then how hard it was,” but goes on to explain that realistically you know when it’s time to make the leap, and you do what works and get rid of the stuff that doesn’t.
“Some of learning is figuring out who you are and who you are not.” He continually builds upon what he learned growing up, but a large variety comes from what he becomes skilled at now. This helps him keep it fresh while remaining grounded in his musical roots.
Knowing that George is either in a recording studio or performing for a crowd multiple times a week, I asked him which he prefers, studio or stage, and learned that “live is my main medium,” and that he really enjoys sharing his songs and those of his mentors with others in that format. He feels he’s not a composer by temperament, and enjoys playing his interpretations of other’s compositions on his albums and the live audiences.
For his original work, he doesn’t force the writing process and it is “times when he feels inspired and things sort of happen” that he writes original compositions. “Plenty of songs get thrown away during the process of songwriting. Some stay out, some come back.” I was amazed to learn that George has “10’s of thousands of recordings” in waiting, some of which will become songs, some of which… won’t. Of the myriad amount of ideas on tape, he’s currently working on recording 10 tracks, “2 more and there’s a new album.”
Focusing on melodies, not words, he mentioned he hears the musical notes, while maintaining “somewhat of a handicap with lyrics.” ‘F, G, G, A#,’ instead of “And the world goes madly on…” Makes perfect sense with the instrumental nature of his work.
Reiterating that “there’s those 5 moments and you know what to do,” George is an inspiration to artists in all walks of life, musical or otherwise. “Just keep at it and keep getting better than last week…”
When asked if there are any rituals he takes part in before shows, he mentions how “some people meditate before they go on stage, I check voicemails…” Making sure there aren’t any emergencies out there is all he needs to feel free and comfortable to get out there and share his craft with the audience.
Always fascinated with how musicians run their practicing regimen, I learned that George runs his by “a big mix between knowing when it’s time to run things and when to rest.” He jokes that he only really “relaxes when he sleeps,” but is otherwise always busy with music or the business of things. He typically plays for at least 30 minutes to upwards of 3 or 4 hours per day and says that a training regimen involves keeping it fresh, which sometimes includes not playing, but often means: play more! Musicians don’t have an off season, so it’s important to not get injured or overdo it, but it is important to follow a regular process of working hard at practicing with resting as necessary.
In terms of rest days, George has a fascinating appreciation of Astronomy and regularly follows news from the Hubble telescope hoping to learn about what the next big discovery is. Interest in earth-like planets and what life may look like on other planets tops his curiosities. Technology is another inspiration with interest in how we evolved up to only a century ago with little to no information except for what we had in front of us, and how now it’s a totally different ballgame where we have information overload and everything we could ever want to know is right there in front of us on TV or the internet.
George’s plans for the future include recording all the great Hawaiian slack key guitarists – he has 39 albums recorded and is looking to put together 15 more with things that have been already recorded for Dancing Cat Records. Other projects include recording his main mentors on harmonica: Sam Hinton (since passed, but recordings are complete) and Rick Epping as well as other prominent harmonica players of Appalachia. After putting out a benefit for hurricane Katrina, he’s currently working on a benefit series for survivors of other tragedies, continuing with volume 2 of the series to benefit the cleanup of the Gulf Oil Spill, and has plans for at least 3 other benefit records heading into the future, including an EP for a Haiti benefit record. He’s in the studio working on volume 2 of The Music of the Doors. Volume 3 of Vince Guaraldi is also on the books.
It’s incredible to know that his main goal aside from recording more records is to keep playing better. “90% is just showing up – just wake up and go do it.” Every bad experience and tough time he’s had, he’s learned more than most of the good experiences, and he’s happy to be still out there doing it!
You can visit George on the web at: http://www.georgewinston.com