The passing of the seasons still inspires pianist George Winston, who captivated audiences in the 1980s and 1990s with albums such as “Autumn,” “Winter into Spring,” “December” and “Summer.”
“I think everything I encounter is part of it one way or another, big or small,” Winston says.
After watching the original broadcast of the 1965 Peanuts holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” soundtracked to Vince Guaraldi Trio's well-known bouncy piano tune “Linus and Lucy,” Winston says he jumped at the chance to learn the music. Since then he's explored stride piano, blues piano and slack-key guitar, among other styles, while staying true to his love of the natural environment.
Much like Guaraldi's music, Winston's piano pieces sound bright and pristine and are often intrinsically tied to the holidays and the never-ending cycle of the seasons.
At his show Sunday at 7 p.m. at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, Winston plans to play a colorful variety of his autumn- and winter-hued songs, and a few from his recent album, the lilting “Spring Carousel,” which he wrote during recovery from a bone marrow transplant while battling myelodysplastic syndrome at City of Hope National Medical Center in California.
Winston spoke with NH Weekend about his inspirations, Guaraldi's influence, and how weather and mood color his own feelings about music.
Why do you feel it's important to have “Spring Carousel” benefit cancer research?
I've tried to help when there have been certain disasters like 9/11 or Katrina or the oil spill in the Gulf, but I have to have the music.
What was your creative process for “Spring Carousel?”
I had a bone marrow transplant at City of Hope near Los Angeles. After I got out of the hospital, I was staying close by and had access to their piano. It was late winter, early spring when all that happened. I realized it's a benefit record for City of Hope because it would not have happened without their treatment and their piano.
You know, I'm glad it happened to me in the 21st century because the medical stuff's so much more advanced. So very, very, very lucky.
So you were sick, yet you're still thinking of new music?
Well, the songs came out of that experience. After the hospital, they have a place called The Village that people from out of town stay and then walk to their doctors' appointments. That's when I had access to the piano every night. The music always tells me what to do. I can't always play it right away. (The composition) “Pixie 13” took me a year to be able to play it.
Why did it take a year?
Oh, it's just a hard piece. And particularly the left-hand stride part… Things take as long as they take sometimes.
What else will people hear at Tupelo?
Vince Guaraldi did the first 16 of the Peanuts soundtracks starting in 1965; I always do some of his pieces. And then I play some of the more up-tempo stuff - a mixture of the New Orleans rhythm and blues-inspired piano, and a mixture of up-tempo and ballad or up-tempo and melodic.
How did you first get interested in Guaraldi's music?
(He had) a hit called “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” in 1962. In 1965, I saw the first time they aired the “Charlie Brown Christmas” story. I wasn't playing yet; I was just a fan of animation. The next day I was at the record store. There was a soundtrack record on the wall. So I got it. I played “Linus and Lucy” (the Charlie Brown theme song) about 20 times in a row. I just love that piece. He's the composer I play the most songs of.
I always think of their Thanksgiving episode - the part when Snoopy fights with the chair and that song comes on.
I think (Guaraldi) sings “Little Birdie.” I do the main theme. Those are very seasonal songs because the episodes always took place in the season, like “Great Pumpkin” or Thanksgiving or Arbor Day or “It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown.”
Why did you switch from playing the organ to piano?
When I heard the Doors in 1967, I was inspired to get an organ, play in a band. It's easy to get infatuated with electronic effects. And I did. (Laughs.) I started on electric and then went acoustic. Most people have piano lessons as a kid, and then get in a band and take up the electric. I did the opposite.
And then four years later I heard a great pianist (from) the '20s and '30s, Fats Waller. He's most famous for his “Ain't Misbehavin.'” I didn't hear Fats Waller until 1971. I switched to piano immediately.
What was it about his music that made you switch so quickly?
Oh, it was just so great. I immediately went, ‘Oh, OK, now I see what's not been quite right all these years.' So it's like having a mentor point me in the right direction.
Why do you sometimes mute the piano strings, like on “Soft Muted Dream?”
Well, certain songs need certain sounds (out) of just, necessity. I just said, “I need something else.” That muting technique cuts off the initial attack when the hammer hits the strings, which gets sustained. You get the ring out after. So it's just an available sound that I use when the song needs it.
So the song tells you what it needs?Oh, yeah. Always. I can't always do it right away, but it always tells me what to do. Music is like the weather. You watch the weather and then you react. You know if it's raining, snowing, sunny. So it's like watching the weather.
Do you know why or how certain notes evoke particular feelings?
No, I just know that they do. And sometimes they don't. It all depends on the person, who they are, and their experiences and their musical tastes. I think it's very, very individual listening.