If you’re a Michigan musician or a composer, you may want to take a cue from renowned pianist George Winston, whose most celebrated music and arrangements were influenced by winter, spring, summer, fall, and the great outdoors. After all, there’s no place like Michigan to experience a variety of seasons.
“I’m influenced by the seasons and topography,” Winston shared recently, before performing live online at the 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival. It may very well be that some of the works played by the pianist feature arrangements and melodies that hearken to his childhood in Michigan, at least subconsciously.
Winston, right, who was born in 1949 in Hart, Mich., says he lived mainly in Grand Rapids when he was very young. “I remember white sand to the west around there and infinite water,” he says. “Blue skies, blue water, and infinite white sand.”
Whether he’s playing his own songs or those written by other composers, Winston gives them all a certain je ne sais quoi, or pleasing quality — whether it’s his distinct minimalist-acoustic rural folk feel with its soulful echoes in different keys, or his lively take on upbeat Vince Guaraldi pieces. When you hear George Winston, there’s no doubt it’s him. His sounds stand apart from the world of pianists the way Godiva rules in the chocolate kingdom.
“I think in terms of seasons,” he explains, “and something emerges every so often, coming with a season or a place. I write down the chords and say, OK, let’s see what that is. And maybe it’s something.”
Winston’s father, who played the piano and guitar by ear, was a geologist who worked for oil companies. His mother also played the piano, Winston says, and used sheet music.
Besides being impressed with Michigan’s sandy shores, he also recalls the west coast’s swathes of floral abundance. “I remember seemingly infinitely long fields of tulips,” says Winston, who released his 15th solo piano album, Restless Wind, in 2019. As for where he lived, the musician says he thought his childhood home had big hills in the backyard that were like “10 feet high,” but today admits he was a bit off on that guesstimate. “I went back and they were like 2 feet tall,” he laughs. “Everything looks bigger when you’re young. Anything you remember when you’re young, you have to shrink it in half.”
Once his father was transferred to Montana, Winston only returned to his home state for concert tours. “I’ve been to Marquette, Ann Arbor, Cheboygan, St. Joe-Benton Harbor, Detroit, Calumet, Interlochen, Kalamazoo — probably 15 or 20 cities in Michigan,” he shares. He says he may be back in his home state sometime in the future. And, who knows — maybe there will be an emergence of his quintessential, uncluttered melodies evoking Michigan’s beautiful west coast or fields upon fields of colorful tulips, both of which would undoubtedly inspire any musician. Regarding the creative process, Winston says, “I’m really part of it (composing); but it has to work out on its own and I can only do so much with discipline and mental focus. It will take its own sweet time.”