George Winston talks Allen Toussaint, documenting America's musical heritage and more
On a recent November afternoon, George Winston was thinking about death.
He was speaking by phone two days after New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint, a “dear friend” and hero, died suddenly in Spain. Beyond being a great loss for the music, Toussaint’s death prompted Winston to discuss how he sees himself departing this earth.
“I have in my will, Don’t do anything,” Winston said from a tour stop in Alabama. “I want the least amount of effort. Cremate me right where I am. Don’t fly the body. Just throw the ashes away. Make the least amount of effort possible. Get on with your life. I’m not here.”
It would be an ironic way to go, because the Grammy-winning pianist, by his own admission, is obsessed with preserving American musical memories and traditions, particularly the instrumental work of legends like Toussaint, Professor Longhair and Vince Guaraldi.
“That’s kind of the main thing I do, is be a librarian,” he said. “If somebody influenced me, I not only talk about them, I try to get recorded portions of what they do that maybe are not documented.”
Winston, 66, should be well-catalogued, too. Often dubbed the Father of New Age Music, he’s known for melodic, introspective piano compositions that reflect a sense of place, a state of mind, a time of year. His concert on Sunday at the Palladium in St. Petersburg — his first local show since 2009 (click here for details) — will have an autumn and winter theme. (You might hear a holiday Peanuts piece or two from his 1996 album Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi.)
But as a composer, Winston said his work is primarily influenced by topography — particularly his sparse, mountainous home state of Montana.
“Theres some old-time fiddle and Native American, but there’s not a ton of music there,” he said. “Historically, people were just getting ready for the winter and trying to survive. There’s not a lot of time to play.”
Compare that to a cities like New Orleans or New York. “If you go to Cajun country, you go, Wow, the music just seeped out of the ground and onto their instruments,” he said. “If you go to New York, you go, The music seeped out of the ground and went into bebop.”
Winston himself is well-traveled — he attended high school in Miami and studied music at Stetson University in Deland — and since 2006 has released two benefit albums inspired by the Gulf Coast, including covers of works by Dr. John, James Booker and Jon Cleary. Over the years, he’s worked on three Toussaint pieces that could end up on a third Gulf Coast album down the line.
In some ways, honoring a region and its musical heroes comes more naturally to Winston than writing original compositions.
“I never compose on purpose,” he said. “I can’t do it like Allen, who just sits down and writes a song. I could never even dream of doing that. For me, it just has to come.”
And how does he know if a melody is worth perfecting?
“You know it’s good if it’s really hard, and you have a lot of obstacles,” he said. “You also know it’s good if it’s really easy, and it flows and there’s no obstacles.”
For many of Winston’s heroes, Toussaint included, the biggest obstacle is time. When he has the opportunity to record with them, he just wants to flip a switch and let them play, capturing as much of this country’s pure musical heritage as possible.
“When I’m in the studio, I usually don’t have that much to say,” he said. “I just kind of get everything. They could not be around tomorrow. Let’s get everything we can.”
-- Jay Cridlin