George Winston Climbs Aboard his Carousel Page 2

To help answer that last question, Winston has formed a close partnership with sound engineer Howard Johnston, who's recorded Van Morrison, Gene Clark, Bill Frisell, and Primus, among many others. It's been crucial to his career. When I pose questions about how he records his music, Winston's standard answer is "Ask Howard." Johnston has been recording Winston since the 1984 piano-and-voice recording Winston made with actress Meryl Streep telling the children's story The Velveteen Rabbit. Johnston says he uses an analog path to record Winston, but digital gear and software for editing and storage.

"Recording is very important to George," Johnston explained in a recent interview. "He lives with and develops the songs and concepts over time. This occurs before he comes into the studio to record. Some songs happen with little or no editing. Some are made by taking the best parts from a couple takes. Sometimes George will record versions of songs months apart, to see what time does to a song, then we'll pick the best version.

"Sometimes we will record improvisations at the end of an evening's recording, or even during a session, just to get a balance between planned (rehearsed) and in-the-moment songs. An album is a selection of preconceived songs augmented by listening to what has been recorded, and letting the music tell you what is needed. George is very creative in that way—he builds his concept for an album, but it can be modified by listening to what the album is trying to say. George comes in with solid concepts and song structures, but he is open to the moment."

"Capturing George's piano sound is a combination of the piano itself, its placement in the room (finding the sweet spot), and the choices of and the placement of the microphones. This all comes together to capture the unique way George plays the piano. We record into Pro Tools, and then repeat the process when we mix by using an analog path to record the mix into Sonic Solutions, and eventually put the master on ½" tape."


What most people, even seasoned New Age music fans, don't know about Winston is something that adds much weight to his musical vision: his love for Teddy Wilson, Harlem Stride pianists like Fats Waller, and, most of all, his abiding respect and devotion to New Orleans piano professors Henry Butler, James Booker, and Professor Longhair. In 1985, Winston's record label, Dancing Cat Records, reissued a Longhair session, Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo. On the new record, he pays homage to Longhair in the ragtime-influenced "Fess' Carousels."

"That comes from certain things I do with the left hand—playing a bass note, anticipating a little quicker than normal—both of which I got from Professor Longhair, even though "Fess' Carousels" doesn't really sound like him, and he didn't play ragtime. Just as I sometimes need Steve Reich, I sometimes need Professor Longhair. He's in everything I do.

"And James Booker as well. I think of the piano in terms of James Booker's language, just like I think of words in terms of English. I never met him, saw him, but I said, 'That's the way to play the piano!' Playing a tune like 'Summertime,' I say to myself, 'Okay, now, which James Booker left hand do I use for this?'"

Winston's love of Booker, an eccentric keyboard genius who recorded sparingly as a leader and was the subject of the 2013 documentary Bayou Maharajah, is unexpectedly deep. After ten minutes of discussing Booker, I realized that Winston would rather talk about James Booker than George Winston—a rare development for a solo musician, who, given the solitary nature of their craft, tend to be self-involved, and limited in their knowledge of the work of other musicians. On Spring Carousel Winston pays tribute to Booker with an original song.

"He very much inspired 'Pixie #13 in C.' He had a song called 'Pixie' on his Junco Partner record that I recorded as well as my own "Pixie #3 (Gôbajie)"on the Katrina benefit record I did in 2006 [Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit]. His 'Pixie' is a medium-tempo blues progression. The left hand never goes down real low—a lot of high-end stuff. It was kind of a genre unto itself. Over the years, I've come up with 14 other 'Pixies.' 'Pixie #13 in C (Gôbajie)' was inspired by a cat I knew, so part of the subtitle is 'Gôbajie,' which is the cat. She had a silent purr, so when she meowed, her purr was very, very chirpy, a lot of vibrato—so sometimes I'm working on something, and these right-hand licks just chirp like Gôbajie!"


Another interesting part of Winston's character, one I wasn't aware of until this interview, is his interest in other songwriters. Turns out that the man who writes highly original, one-of-a-kind pieces for solo piano spends time—lots of time, according to our conversation—working on cover versions of other songbooks.

"There are three composers I've tried to do every song, and they all don't all work out as solo-piano pieces: Vince Guaraldi, Professor Longhair, and the Doors. Most composers, I do one song. Sam Cooke, I do five. Dr. John, I can do five. James Booker, I play four. Randy Newman, only two really work. With Randy, the melodies and the chords are great, but the stories are so much part of it."

While many of these tunes are worked into Winston's live sets as surefire crowd pleasers, some also make it onto his albums. He covered Frank Zappa's "The Little House I Used to Live In" and Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" on Montana: A Love Story (2004). For Spring Carousel, his first album of all originals since 1980 and his first folk-piano record since Montana, he had a cover in mind but eventually scrapped the idea.


"It was a muted-piano version of the Association's 'Windy.' Wes Montgomery had a hit with it too, and I always liked both versions. There's a song on the album called 'Soft Muted Dream,' and 'Dream 2,' where I am muting the piano with the left hand and playing the keys with the right, to get the sound that those songs wanted. I muted for all of 'Windy.' It didn't quite fit, just like other wrinkles didn't fit, but I always liked the tune. It was such a vocal hit, and Wes did a great thing with it. I'm sure he was surprised to have a song on the hit parade.

Now fully recovered from his illness—"It's like it never happened," he says cheerfully—Winston is back on the road, touring in support of his latest whimsical musical journey.

"It's like the albums are soundtracks, but there's no movie. So I'm really serving the theme of the album. The music always tells me what to do. I can't always do it right away, but it always tells me, 'This is what to play, this is how to play it.' There's no effort in finding out what to do—the great effort lies in being able to do it."


dalethorn's picture

There was a nifty little store on State St. in Santa Barbara that we shopped at in the 90's through 2004, that had a lot of gift items and a good selection of new-age CDs. I bought some of those CDs - Kim Robertson, Suzanne Ciani, Sheila Chandra, etc. So I tried sampling George Winston on the several albums they listed on iTunes. I tried to find something that didn't seem gimmicky, and could not. Maybe I didn't try hard enough. One artist I found only 6 decent music tracks by, after sampling a large catalog of tracks, was Mantovani. I have just those 6 tracks, and they're quite good with minimal "sweeping strings". But I didn't find anything by Winston unfortunately.

badboy07's picture

I first encountered George Winston sort of by mistake. During a high school era visit to a Best Buy to kill some time, I saw an endcap in the then prodigious music department featuring George Winston's latest release, "Linus & Lucy, The Music of Vince Guaraldi." Being ignorant of both artists, I bought the CD on a whim and have been a fan of both ever since.