WhatsUp Interview: Pianist George Winston, Coming to Narrows Center Friday

Friday October 26th brings award winning pianist George Winston to Fall River’s Narrows Center for the Arts. The solo pianist achieved widespread fame in the 1980’s when he released several top selling albums, including the triple platinum masterpiece December.

We spoke with Winston by phone earlier this month and learned about the origins of his genre, a style he describes as “rural folk piano.”

“I came up with that style back in ’71. I had just started piano and I heard Fats Waller recordings and I immediately switched from organ to piano. I needed something melodic to balance out the up-tempo stuff. There’s not a lot of improv, its about letting the resonance in the piano ring out.”

The style was heavily influenced by the influential “American Primitive” guitarist John Fahey who discovered Winston in 1971.

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“One of John’s fortes was real simple slow stuff which is real hard because every note counts. I met him and played him some things back in ’72, he signed me up for his label Tacoma Records. That (first) record, Ballads and Blues, went out of print real quick but later got re-issued. It got me started, got me used to recording in a studio. It wasn’t really a theme record, like I did later, it was the ten best songs at the time.”

“John was a good friend,” explained Winston, “without him, I wouldn’t be playing in Fall River. A lot of it goes back to him.”

George Winston

Thematic Albums

Time and place are central themes in Winston’s recordings. His process for developing concepts and later recording songs is unique.

“It’s more noticing things, than a process … I’ll notice that there five or six songs that seem to have a common theme like songs about the Great Plains or a forest, or songs that feel like summer or feel like autumn. And then when others come along, if they do, over time, maybe there will be ten or twelve songs and then I have an album concept. I’ll record them and if its not ready yet, then over the years I’ll keep an eye out for other songs that seem to fit. Then I’ll put them in the right order, get the right version recorded. It’s a long process and I work slowly on several at a time.

“Music to me is more like noticing the weather… then you do what you do because of the weather. The music always tells you what to do, and then I put a lot of work in. I’ve never tried to compose anything, things just seem to emerge out of thin air in about a minute or two. Certain things get used in certain places. The use always emerges. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you get a recording or you get a book and after 10 years and you decide now its time to read that book. It’s kind of like that … OK, now it’s time to play that song. My job is to be ready when that moment strikes.”

Influence of The Doors

In 2002, Winston did an album of Doors covers titled Night Divides the Day. Although it might seem out of place for a solo keyboardist, the music fits nicely in Winston’s repertoire. Winston explained,

“I was a big fan of instrumentals and organists as a teenager. In January 1967, the Doors weren’t really known at the time, except in LA. I got the record, cause like all records at the time, I only got records that had organists. I put it on and thought this was just the greatest thing I ever hear – I need to get an organ and play in a band. If it wasn’t for The Doors, I wouldn’t have played, I wouldn’t have met John Fahey. The Doors is where it all goes back to. Those songs have been weighing on my consciousness for between 47-51 years, the years they recorded. Their music just comes natural to me.”

Winston continues to explore different styles of his instrument.

“Most of the piano I work on these days is New Orleans Rhythm and Blues piano with inspiration from Professor Longhair, Henry Butler, who just passed, John Cleary and Dr. John. I’ve used what I learned from them on up-tempo stuff like The Doors songs. I don’t really play The Doors like The Doors played it. I play it folk style. I’d be no where without all those musical mentors.”

Doors fans take note, Winston’s not done recording …“I am working on Volume 2 … been working on it for a while, probably about 50 years when you think about it,” Winston noted amusingly.

If you’re going to the show, bring a can or two of food. “Since 1986, we’ve been working with local food banks. I realized I wanted to interact with the communities who’ve invited me in another way, so we always invite a local food band and ask people to bring a can. And the food bank always gets proceeds from our CD sales,” shared Winston.

George Winston plays the Narrows Center for the Arts on Friday October 26th. Tickets and further details available here.