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.
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