George Winston has lived in Santa Cruz, California, since 1971. His acoustic-piano solo albums helped define and establish the Bay area New Age label Windham Hill in the 1980s, and he’s continued performing instrumental pieces on piano, guitar, and harmonica ever since.
Though his sound might be associated with a West Coast kind of cool, Winston claims more inspiration from the places, seasons, and colors he experienced earlier in his life. His most popular albums are Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December, which have all sold more than a million copies (with December topping 3 million). Winston, 67, releases Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit, this month. He seriously loves cats.
You call your style “folk piano.”
I started playing organ in 1967 when I heard The Doors. Then when I heard Fats Waller’s piano recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, I switched to the piano. So it was uptempo stuff. And I said, “Well, I want the opposite. I want, like, melodic and simple and slow, as a complement to the hot piano.” So I came up with that way of playing based on what the piano can do with the sustained notes. I called it folk piano because it was kind of like folk guitar, kind of like folk songs. Simple, melodic, staying in the key, not lots of harmony. Sometimes I call the melodic style “rural folk,” because it’s a rural sensibility.
Were you inspired by places that you grew up?
I’m inspired by Mississippi in the South, and Florida, but very much Montana. The Montana seasons were so extreme that I just thought of everything as seasons. Nearly any song that I liked and wanted to listen to was a season song for me. I’ll be working on stuff and go, “Oh, this is a spring song.”
Some people say they hear colors.
I do with keys. A woods song might be in the key of E, because that’s green for me. If it’s November in the woods, well that’s more brown, and it might be in the key of D. But it all comes down to … the piano is the boss. It has to sound good on the piano.
You make great use of space in your music.
I love piano not only [for] the power of it … it’s the way certain chords sustain. You can accompany yourself, left hand right hand, but [apply] that sustain sound, and it’s going off in the distance. I love things that go off in the distance. As a kid, I liked hearing airplanes go farther and farther away, or trains. So it’s not really space as much as allowing that texture to do its thing with the overtones. You can never predict. Sometimes there’ll be a little wah-wah that’s very subtle, so if that’s happening, I’m not going to play another note for awhile.
Do you take requests?
I used to, but I work best if I prepare.
You run the risk of someone yelling “Free Bird.”
Well, they did. I’d never heard “Free Bird.” When Jim Morrison died, I went immediately back to 1928. So I checked it out, and went, “Yeah, great tune, but doesn’t quite work,” you know. So it was educational, the tunes that people would yell.
George Winston performs at the Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Mel-rose Ave.) on Saturday, March 25, at 8pm. $17-$35. For more in-formation, call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org.