BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ah, George Winston. Just his name is relaxing now.
His "folk piano" records were the first New Age music to find real commercial success, securing a place for the innovative Windham Hill label in the early '80s.
His delicate playing evokes the patient seasons, pastoral landscapes and rollicking psychedelic binges glimpsed through previously unopened doors of perception.
Wait a minute. What was that last one?
Winston has recorded many tributes in his storied career as an instrumental pianist. He's paid homage to the great New Orleans ivory-ticklers that inspired him, namely Professor Longhair and James Booker, and a few years ago he recorded an entire album of Vince Guaraldi's compositions.
But his latest project seems, at first, a bit out of step with what we've come to expect from this soothing player.
The new album is "Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors," 13 classic songs by the Doors translated through Winston's nine-foot Steinway.
The project has been so well-received thus far that Winston performed a concert with Doors organist Ray Manzarek on Sept. 26 in New York City.
The album proved to be a challenge for Winston, and in our recent interview he discussed the unique opportunities in listening to the Doors for the music instead of just grooving to Jim Morrison's poetry.
How did you develop the idea for an entire album of Doors songs?
I had been working on a series of solo piano dances, kind of being a piano one-man band. I was checking out everything I wanted to play, R&B and soul and rock, Sam Cooke and Gershwin and the Beatles. I was trying out everything possible, and that was going to be my next record — Volume One of these solo dances.
But I noticed that I had worked up 24 Doors songs, a lot of which were not danceable. I began working more with them, and that became the project. The Doors record got bumped ahead to be the new record.
So it was purely happenstance?
Well, sort of. I have listened to and been inspired by the Doors for 35 years . . . I was a senior in high school in 1967 when I got the Doors' first album, just because someone told me they had an organist.
I'd never heard of them. I put it on, and right away "Break on Through to the Other Side" obliterated everything I had ever heard. I was like, "Whoa! What is that?" I decided I had to get an organ and play in a band one day.
Had you ever thought of recording these songs before?
No. I wasn't even thinking of doing it when this all came about. They're very difficult composers to interpret, and my main temperament is as an interpreter. I mean, with the Doors, the version is the version, you know?
Jose Feliciano did a great version of "Light My Fire," so that was encouraging. It was very difficult to make them my own, though. I definitely put the time in on this one. Out of the 24 I had, these 13 worked together best to make the statement I wanted to make.
And what statement is that?
I like albums to be like one song all the way through. I want the songs to work together in the right order, and these 13 seemed to me to flow together very well the way I had done them. It's great when it all just kind of speaks to you like that.
Was it worth the hard work?
Oh yes, but I'll never do a record this hard again. Most of these songs were organ songs, not piano, originally. Plus, it was all so personal to me. It was like I was writing a novel about them: I wanted to do them justice because I love them. The more time you've lived with something, the more significant it is. And, you know, what else can you do with "Light My Fire"?
Well, it seems that you took the song to New Orleans. That track and "People Are Strange" really heave with a bluesy — almost ragtime — rhythm. Is that because of your New Orleans influences or because they sprang from this dance music project?
Some of the songs translated well into my folk piano, melodic mode, and some of them, like those two, are in an R&B style — my James Booker, New Orleans piano mode. That came out of the dances.
I was working those songs up to be dances, indirect listening. Those two songs are done completely the way James Booker would have played them. His piano language has kind of ingrained itself into me involuntarily.
Professor Longhair was instrumental in your career, so to speak. What was your relationship to him?
I never met him. I'd quit playing in the late '70s, and I heard his 1949 recordings 30 years later, in '79. I thought it was so perfect that I started playing again. He inspired James Booker, too, and that became my way of thinking about the piano.
You grew up in Montana, and I assume those wide-open spaces and changing seasons fueled your seasonal records ("Autumn," "Winter Into Spring," "December") and that open, circular style you call "folk piano." How did that develop?
The folk piano is a style I made up in 1971 as a reaction to stride piano. I wanted to do something simple and melodic, which was opposite of the stride style.
I love to have the piano ring out and to keep it simple. I'm interested more in tone quality than in having a lot of notes. But if it wasn't for the stride, I wouldn't have had anything to react against.
How much Montana is in your music?
The folk piano records are extremely Montana-based. Everything I do, really, has some Montana in it — even the Doors album. The cover photo of the Doors record was taken in Montana, by the way.
The way the four seasons are so distinct and different there influences everything I do, even the R&B. "People Are Strange," for instance, is an autumn song. Everything to me is seen through the seasons — that's the bottom line.
Some people refer to sound or "om" or the creator, but seasons are the driving force to me. The Vince Guaraldi stuff is all about that.
All that Charlie Brown stuff is undeniably linked to certain times of year, not just because the television specials aired around holidays but because the songs were about seasons.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.