George Winston September 2019

George Winston

If you're familiar with the work of pianist George Winston mainly from his best-selling albums of solo piano music, you know just one side of Winston.

So, consider this: His first instrument was the organ. And the band that inspired him to start playing the organ: The Doors.

"They had an organist," Winston said in an interview this week with The E. So, he remembers thinking at the time: "I've got to get an organ and play in a band."

Years later, Winston would return the favor for that bit of inspiration by recording an album of Doors covers. And the circle was completed when that band's organist, Ray Manzarek, told Winston that he loved the album, "Night Divides the Day."

That's just one of the influences that Winston will bring to the stage of the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis on Friday and Saturday night, for a pair of solo shows. In a career that's closing in now on 50 years, Winston has remained remarkably faithful to his influences, and careful listeners will be able to hear all of them during his concerts.

Winston was born in Michigan, but grew up mostly in Montana as well as Mississippi and Florida. A few years after he started playing the organ, he said, he was exposed to stride pianists such as Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, and switched to piano.

"When I switched to piano, it was another whole mountain to climb," Winston said, and he's under no illusions about where he stands as a player in comparison to a player like Waller.

"I can never get what Fats did, but I can get toward it at moments," he said.

The stride piano work eventually led to an interest in New Orleans-style rhythm-and-blues pianists such as Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Henry Butler. Even now, Winston refers to New Orleans as the "center of the universe" musically.

But he's still had time for other musical interests: Slack key Hawaiian guitar, for example, or solo harmonica or the music of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, an interest that dates back to when a 16-year-old Winston heard the music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

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The musical interests are reflected in his eclectic catalog of recordings: He's recorded a solo harmonica record. He has produced recordings of slack key Hawaiian guitarists and may perform a song or two on guitar during the Corvallis shows.

He's recorded two albums of Guaraldi tunes and is working on a third. He's working on another album of Doors songs. And a Doors song, "The Unknown Soldier," shows up on his most recent album, "Autumn Wind," which was released earlier this year.

"It's kind of like growing a garden, and you're tending to different pots," he said of the variety of projects he has simmering at any given time. 

"Autumn Wind" also features songs by Sam Cooke and Stephen Stills, along with jazz standards, folk songs and a sprinkling of Winston originals.

Some of those newer tracks may get a workout in the Corvallis concerts, but Winston fans who know him best from his "seasonal" albums — "Winter," "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn" and "December" — will get to hear some of those tracks live.

For concerts, Winston has what he calls his "summer" and "winter" show and plans, appropriately, to perform the "summer" set for both of his Corvallis dates.

"The bottom line is I have to want to play the song" in concert, he said — and that means that only about 15% of the music he's recorded over his career ever gets performed live. 

Performing live and working in the studio each offer different challenges, he noted. "Live might be difficult because you can only do a song once. The studio might be difficult because you can do it again and again."

Winston's albums traditionally have topped Billboard's New Age music charts, but his last two releases, "Restless Wind" and "Spring Carousel — A Cancer Research Benefit" also have landed in relatively new territory for him: "Spring Carousel" topped the jazz charts and "Restless Wind" landed at No. 2.

Winston, who has been faithful to his musical influences for decades, was bemused by the chart success of the albums: "I was surprised. I guess all kinds of things are called jazz."

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