Although he has long since tired of the description, pianist George Winston has become synonymous with the new-age genre thanks to his seasonal-themed recordings for the Windham Hill label over the past two decades. And while Winston’s output at one time was dominated by original compositions, in recent years, the artist has delved headfirst into interpretations of songs by everyone from Vince Guaraldi (“Linus and Lucy”) to Garth Brooks to Winston’s Windham Hill colleague Philip Aabaerg.
A long-time supporter of charitable institutions (patrons are often encouraged to bring can food donations to his concerts), Winston recently released the six-track album “Remembrance” as a tribute to those lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The set, proceeds from which will benefit as-yet-undetermined charities, displays Winston’s musical versatility, as it includes pieces for solo guitar, piano, and harmonica.
In between supervising the recording of Hawaiian slack-key guitar masters for his own Dancing Cat label and an always-busy concert schedule, Winston is also working on a solo piano album of Doors covers, tentatively titled “The Night Divides The Day.” The artist recently spoke to Billboard.com about his new projects, the recent anniversary reissues of his landmark “Autumn” and “December” albums, and the artists who influence him to continue his musical explorations.
George, what can you report about your Doors covers album? How did the project come about?
Well, over the last couple of years, I’ve been playing more solo piano dances, where the piano is a one-man band kind of thing; R&B, slow dance, just working out music of various composers, you know, Sam Cooke, Beatles, Doors, George Gershwin, Dr. John, looking everywhere for tunes I remember or hadn’t heard. I worked out a bunch of Doors songs for those dances as well, and those songs kept staying my head, although some of them I’ve been carrying in my head for 34 years.
I was going to [record] “The Dance Vol. 1” — the dances are about three hours, so I was going to do three volumes of that — but then I realized that the Doors album was the one coming out of the ground ahead of that. I wasn’t ready for that at all. I thought Jim Morrison was impossible to interpret. But it’s so different. And I’ve certainly put in the decades of time on it.
They’re definitely my favorite band. To me, they weren’t even a band. They just were, you know? What do you call them? It’s like a musical, except it’s real. To me, that’s what they are. Musicals and operas were done before there were movies. I never saw them live. I saw them on TV and had to have the records. They’re issuing a bunch of live concerts now, which is great.
How for along are you in terms of recording?
Eleven down, four to go. From the first album, there’s “Soul Kitchen,” “Crystal Ship,” and “Light My Fire.” From “Strange Days,” it’s “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind,” “People Are Strange,” “You’re Lost Little Girl,” and “Love Me Two Times.” From “Waiting for the Sun,” there’s “Summer’s Almost Gone,” “Love Street,” “Spanish Caravan,” and “My Wild Love.” From “The Soft Parade” there’s “Wishful Sinful.” Nothing from “Morrison Hotel.” Sixth album, there’s “Love Her Madly” and “Riders on the Storm.”
The 15th song is from a Jim Morrison album called “An American Prayer,” which was reissued on CD in 1995. He read a poem called “Bird Of Prey,” and I got to do what Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger did, which was put chords to his melodies.
These are not necessarily what the average Doors fan would consider hits. Also, I think the fact that you cite the Doors as your favorite band might surprise people.
Probably about half of them are well known, and half lesser known. They’re all well known to me, so I just picked what would work best as piano solos. But on a lot of the songs, Ray is playing organ instead of piano.
I got a further thing out of hearing Jim Morrison interpret some songs he didn’t write, and compared to the originals — he would smash them into 1,000 pieces and put them together his own way. So I said, “Well, I’ll do that with him then,” you know? I do that with other people. I love these songs and I love these guys. What do I do? I just listen.
For the dances, I can get away with this because it’s not a listening thing, like a record or a concert. You can play tunes that don’t necessarily hit the nail on the head as piano solos. As long as they’re danceable and I like the tune, they don’t have to be a definitive version for a record. There can be more experimenting. I figured I’d play their stuff at dances, and the whole thing just bloomed.
Do any surviving Doors know you are recording this album?
I’ve talked to Ray and I actually left him a message and haven’t heard back. This was originally conceived to do bonus tracks for the 20th anniversary of “Autumn.” The Doors’ first and second albums influenced “Autumn” a lot. So I thought I’d do it for that, and it just expanded. Ray knew I was doing the bonus tracks. I left him a message telling him which 15 songs I was doing. He’s a great guy.
Do you have a target date to wrap the sessions?
Well, you know, I’m not sure. It could be done by the beginning or the middle of March. It would need definitely to be done by the beginning of May. In between touring, I go in and work on that and the slack key stuff. Those are the two things I’ve been doing when I’m not touring. If it’s not a good piano day, or my fingers are sore, I go back to the slack key projects.
For the “Remembrance” album, was it unusual for you to write songs and record them so quickly right afterward?
Yeah, that is unusual. Usually what influences an album is one of the seasons, secondarily would be topography or a general location. Third might be a composer, like Vince Guaraldi. Events do affect what I do, but it’s like the fourth thing.
This one was unusual because it was an event that influenced it. I was making a long drive home from Bakersfield to Santa Cruz [Calif.] on Sept. 14, and it just came to me to record these six songs and make it a benefit album. You know, I wanted it soon so it could contribute. It’s such a concentrated set of events and emotions. What would normally take seven or 10 years took five days. It happened to everybody one way or the other. It was just my reaction; what I did. Everybody did a year in a week.
Have you been performing any of the new songs in your concerts?
I’m doing three of them. I started doing them in the first show right after [Sept. 11]. It’s actually pretty common for me to play songs I haven’t recorded, which just fit in a certain place in a concert. If I play a song at a concert, I usually do eventually record it, but not always. Sometimes I will record it for archival reasons, or record the show live. I let each song go where it wants to go. Some songs want to be at a dance, or at a concert, or on a record and at a concert.
Some songs I record but never play live; they’re just for that slot on the record and trying to tell a story. There’s one song on “Plains,” called “No Ke Ano Ahiahi” — I just felt like playing it right there on the piano. It was one take and I’ll never play it again. I don’t want to play it on piano; I want to play it on guitar. It just happened to feel right for some strange reason then. It fit well on the album. If I play it in front of anybody, I would play it on guitar.
Which charities will be receiving proceeds from the album?
We’re still working on that, because the royalties have not come in yet. We’re trying to find groups that are kind of in the cracks, which may not be visible. We’re working with a group that surveys all these things that is helping us locate charities. Obviously the Red Cross is kind of covered. What isn’t covered that would really help?
There are so many things you don’t really hear about. There’s a group providing free food for the workers — that’s all they’re doing. We’re looking at more grass roots groups like that. This record will benefit people forever. People are laid off from this. It will always be for something, even 20 years from now.
I’ve always wanted to do a benefit record, but I never quite had the songs. It never quite coalesced. The seeds were there, but there just wasn’t a cloud. The events made it coalesce. I have been touring since and haven’t been able to come [to New York].
Would you say the first volume of “The Dance” might be the next project in line?
Could be. It’s hard to say. I never got far enough to putting anything on tape. I was going to, but the Doors one took it over. The next one will either be “Dance Vol. 1,” or it will be a second Vince Guaraldi volume, or an album of Randy Newman tunes, or “Plains Vol. 2,” or an album of all Professor Longhair pieces. It’s one of those five that’s next.
My whole thing is practicing for live shows and for dances. Records I don’t really practice for. It’s like throwing seeds in the back yard and all the sudden something is growing. Just to see what comes up naturally. Those five will all be recorded, as will “Dance Vol. 2” and “Vol. 3.” I don’t know what or when.
Since [1991’s] “Summer,” you have been recording less and less original pieces. At this point, would you say you take more joy in interpreting other artists’ compositions than writing your own?
Oh, that’s my favorite thing to do is interpret. I don’t have a composer’s temperament at all. I’ll make up a song about once a year and go, “Wow, that’s a real song.” I’ll write the chords down, but it’s an accident that happens once in a while. If it’s a real song, it will keep its form over time and will stick around, and I’ll make a note of it. There are so many great songs out there. I don’t play Brahms. I play Sam Cooke [laughs]. I have a whole different set of music going on.
Your tours are sometimes divided into “winter” and “summer” shows. But does the setlist change from night-to-night, within those themes?
There will always be the “summer” and “winter” shows, but things within them change. The “summer” show is more or less spring and summer. It’s not a real strict format but it’s basically spring and summer. The “winter” show is basically fall and winter, but it doesn’t have to be.
The songs get half a year to rest, and things get developed sometimes when you stay away from them. You give it a rest and its fresh. I like to stay within the seasons sometimes, but I’ve played the “summer” show in December! It’s nice to be free of the cycles too. Sometimes its necessary to break the laws. I’m here in December and I’ve played the “winter” show three times in a row. I want to play the other show! So you make yourself get in the mood; turn up the heat in the hotel room or something [laughs].
In light of the recent anniversary reissues of “Autumn” and “December,” which introduced you to so many listeners, how have your views of these albums changed over time? Do you still enjoy playing these songs?
What it is is the pieces that have improv and grow and change over time get played. The ones that don’t have a shorter life. I still play from “Autumn” — “Woods,” “Colors,” and “Moon.” From “December,” I play “Thanksgiving,” “Carol of the Bells,” and Pachelbel’s “Kanon.”
For the “Winter Into Spring” [album], there will be a 20th anniversary edition next spring. It will have a bonus track and piece of sheet music for that as well. I still do a song from that album called “Rain.” Some songs have a longer life, particularly ones that have room for growth, solos, and new intros. Either way is okay.
What about a song like “Blossom/Meadow” [from “Winter Into Spring”]?
I probably stopped playing that in about 1992 or 1993. It lasted that long. And also, giving it a rest for half a year makes everything live a little longer.
What more can you reveal about the anniversary edition of “Winter Into Spring”?
The bonus track is a song I composed back in about 1988, inspired by Eastern Montana and called “Pine Hills.” It wasn’t quite right for “Summer,” “Forest,” or “Plains.” To me, it fits well as a bonus track for “Winter Into Spring.” I knew it was good for something, I just didn’t know what.
In basketball, if it’s in and out, it’s not two points. It was close to working, but not quite. It was a pretty good tune. It was recorded in Miles City, Mont., because it was composed on a piano that had a particular idiosyncratic sound. I took recording gear and did 48 takes, because it wasn’t like I could go back and do it. Twenty-four takes each day. I knew I got it in there somewhere, but I wanted to make sure. I’d do five or six at a time, take a rest, go back to the hotel, next day, come back and do it again.
It’s an interesting piece, sonically. There’s a lot of muted piano with the hand. It seems to fit there. The album already has the “Venice Dreamer” introduction, which is another different kind of use of the sonics of the piano, as opposed to being a normal kind of song.
Well, after recording it almost 50 times, it must be nice to finally have it released!
Yeah! Well, I’ve done more takes than that on some things. Sometimes you have to say, “Well, the song isn’t happening today.” If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.
There are other things that didn’t make it to “Plains” that will probably make it onto “Plains Vol. 2.” There are probably five things that won’t make it onto anything. Maybe they’ll wind up on a compilation or something. There’s a few things that just didn’t quite fit or maybe weren’t even quite strong enough; maybe that felt good when I recorded it, but upon listening, I went, “Well, that was for the moment only.” There’ll always be a few of those laying around. Maybe there’ll be a 20th anniversary edition of “Summer.” You never know! It’s coming up in 2011!
In the early days of Windham Hill, there seemed to be a camaraderie between the artists that is sort of lost today. Are you still in contact with any of the artists from that period?
Just Phil Aaberg. I talk to him all the time, but I really haven’t been in touch with any of the others for about 10 or 15 years. Most of my attention is with the slack key players. I played harmonica on an old Celtic piece for Phil’s next record called “Eagle’s Whistle.”
Just Phil. He’s from Montana and he’s the only melodic pianist I’ve ever studied. He’ll send me things to ask which take I like the best. We’re both coming from that plains standpoint and we understand what each other is doing. He has his own label called Sweetgrass Music. He did a live album and I was at the show. We listened back to the tapes to pick the songs, which was fun. He had a song called “Westbound” and right at the end of the song before the applause, a train whistled! But the mic didn’t pick it up. We all heard it though. We waited and caught a train out the window later on, and edited it in exactly where it did happen. I will also send him tunes I think he might like.
I was in touch with [the late] Michael Hedges here and there, more back in the early ’80s. You get so busy. If you’re playing shows, you never go see one, because you’re playing [laughs]!
Fans have been thrilled that you included some sheet music on the recent reissues. But do you ever envision releasing a more definitive collection of sheet music?
No. I just don’t have time. Somebody transcribed that stuff and I checked every note, but I have so many other things to do. I could do it for a song here and there, but it’s so far down in my priorities, I just know I’ll never get to it. It’ll never happen.
As a pianist, I was wondering if you are left-handed. I ask because I am not, and I find the difficulty in some of your pieces is maintaining the left hand part.
I write left-handed, but I use a spoon right-handed. I don’t consider myself to have a great either hand. I don’t do any of the classical left hand stuff. I do the James Booker/New Orleans R&B left hand. I wouldn’t be real strong at like, having the left hand play with the right hand does, like double scales. I’ve never really worked on that stuff because I’m never going to use it. I really have to work on the stride and keeping the left hand going with a strong bass, like James Booker and Professor Longhair did.
The whole way I approach piano is like a band. The left hand is the band. Get the left hand automatic, and the right hand is the lead singer who just sings and leaves early. I certainly don’t have the best left or right hand in the world. But that’s the approach I use. It comes from boogie-woogie piano, where you play a bass pattern with the left hand until it’s automatic. Stride piano is a big extension of that: get the left hand solid as you can, and have it be the band, to support the singer. The right hand can also be the rhythm guitar, where you hit something on [the] two and four [beats] in between playing the melody. It’s always left hand first, because I have to have something to play off.
I’m doing more things where both hands work together, instead of the left hand being so automatic. I learned some of that from Henry Butler, who would break up the steady rhythm, but the rhythm will still be implied, which is amazing. The basis of my style is to have the left hand be the band, and the right hand be the clarinet, trombone, lead singer, or whatever you want to call it.
The late guitarist John Fahey’s Takoma label released your 1972 debut album, “Ballads & Blues,” which was eventually re-released on Windham Hill. Can you reflect a bit on what Fahey meant to you?
Certainly! Have you got a week? Everything I do is what he did. He played solo concerts, recorded guitarists, made solo instrumental records. He showed me it was possible. He did it with Delta blues guitarist and I do it with slack key players. It sped it up for me so much seeing somebody do it; to be able to see that it was possible, back in the rock and disco era. Slack key is like the Delta blues. There is a Robert Johnson and John Hurt of Hawaii.
John was a mentor. The stuff he did was inspirational to me as well. He recorded my first album, which led to the “Autumn” album later. The people at Windham Hill heard the first one. I was approaching them to try to get them to record some of the slack key players. I didn’t have a label yet and couldn’t even envision such a thing. They heard that old record and recorded me, so it all goes back to John for me.
Many American guitarists have been inspired by him. He was the first one to start his own label and do his own compositions. He started doing that in 1958! It paved the way for artists to have their own labels to release their own music. Who else was going to record John in 1958? He also recorded Robbie Basho, and later, a Leo Kottke album that became very popular.
“Ballads & Blues” is fully under the Windham Hill umbrella, correct?
Oh, I own that. I bought that record back in the early ’80s. Dancing Cat is distributed by RCA and BMG. We’ve got a nice long-term contract and it has worked well for 20 years. We’ve explored other things over time, but this has worked. It’s all in one place, which is good. I’m sure the accountants love it. I like it all being in one place. There have been lots of different Windham Hills and lots of BMGs. You have to be careful to get along with everybody; they might be your boss in a month! Or you might be their boss!
I lost track of all of Windham Hill’s distributors in 1982. In ’82, I got so busy and didn’t follow it, except for Phil Aaberg’s recordings. I had gotten some of the stuff in the mail. I had just gotten home and was unpacking and stuff. I put [the album] “High Plains” on and I thought, “Wow, I am really thinking about Montana so totally right now!” And I went and looked at the song title, and it was called “Montana Half Light.” And I went, “Wow, does he capture that or what?” I didn’t even know it was a Montana record. He just captures it so unbelievably. It’s an amazing experience to listen to his music if you’re actually in Montana! He’s the greatest.
Do you ever have any time for non-musical pursuits?
I like to read a little science, but there’s only so many hours in the day. When I can, I read about space and science.
Based on your great interest in slack-key guitar, do you envision yourself ever recording a solo guitar album?
Yeah, I probably will. But I’m so busy with the slack key players, I’d rather get that done. Maybe I’ll see what they don’t do. If there are certain things I hear… Ozzy Kotani just did an album that we’ve been working on for about five years, of Queen Liliuokalani. It’s an album that needed to happen. I didn’t want to do it, and I thought if nobody did, I would. Ozzy was my favorite instrumental interpreter of her compositions. She is Hawaii’s most beloved composer, and she was its last ruler before the Americans took it over.
Guitar I just want to play. I don’t really want to make records, but maybe I will.
Since one of the guitar pieces on “Remembrance” is a new version of a song you previously recorded on piano, would you ever consider re-doing other piano-originated pieces for guitar?
“Where Are You Now” is the last song on “Summer.” That was a guitar piece I recorded in 1990 for the “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” soundtrack. It was just a short fragment there that I expanded for the piano. For “Remembrance,” I wondered, “What does the guitar want to say with it?”
Songs usually don’t go between the two instruments. I’ve got a lot of dividing things in my life. I have a lot of walls. The R&B techniques don’t leak into the folk piano techniques. Stride piano doesn’t leak into either one too much. Guitar and piano don’t leak into each other, and the harmonica doesn’t. It’s fine with me, because you have options. You have several ways of playing any given tune on a given instrument. In theory, I could try it 10 different ways.
“Where Are You Now” was a tune that was able to go between the guitar and the piano. They don’t really leak, which is good in a way. Then things can be different from each other.
I wanted to ask you about a story that is often repeated about the night you met [Windham Hill founder] Will Ackerman. Supposedly you were able to play, on piano, note-for-note versions of his solo guitar pieces.
I think I played a little bit of an Alex DeGrassi piece. I think that’s fairly accurate. He kind of enjoyed it [laughs]. I fooled around with “Turning,” off of Alex’s first album. I guess it was fairly accurate. Alex’s music is very hard to play. Only he can do it. I think he’s doing some stuff on his on label, kind of like Phil is. That’s really a good way to go!
“Turning” is the first song on Alex’s first album. He combined two songs on the “An Evening With Windham Hill Live” album and it’s one of the greatest guitar solos in history.
When I heard James Booker, I turned around and a lot of melodic songs, and the Alex-type of guitar pieces, I just ceased to play. I said, “Really what I need to play is Sam Cooke and stuff.” Before I heard James Booker, I didn’t know that many tunes and didn’t have the R&B style, which is about 98% of everything I work on now. I was working in a stride and melodic style. But when I heard James Booker, I knew that was what I was looking for. Melodic is something I do on the side. It’s about half of the concert and about two-thirds of what I’ve recorded. Whatever the theme of the record wants, I put that in. I don’t try for versatility.
The records are soundtracks without a movie. I just go with what seems to work best, which has been melodic. For the dance records, it will be R&B and slow dance. I like to stay in the theme. That’s how I hear it!