George Winston. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Pianist George Winston is a California resident who has been riding out the pandemic in Richmond, Virginia – a city that’s been a longtime second home to him – since March. He’ll be venturing out for the first time since lockdown for three shows at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit next week.

Winston’s latest album is last year’s “Restless Wind,” home to his interpretations of songs by Sam Cooke, George Gershwin, Stephen Stills and The Doors, along with the opening original track “Autumn Wind (Pixie 11).” The album hit the No. 1 and 2 spots on the new age and jazz charts, respectively.

Winston, 70, released his first album in 1972. Eight years later, he released “Autumn” followed by “Winter into Spring” and “December” in 1982. In 1991, came “Summer” which reached No. 1 on the new age music chart as did his next two records. All told, he has sold more than 15 million albums. Winston’s “Linus and Lucy – The Music of Vince Guaraldi” is a holiday staple. Despite his achievements on the new age charts, Winston describes his sound as “rural folk piano” and prefers to not be associated with the new age genre.

Winston has also been a touring musician for most of his career. Along with the piano, he plays guitar and harmonica and often works them into his live performances.

Winston said, during a conversation from a Richmond hotel room, that when the lockdown became quickly imminent in March, he had just played a show in Alabama, and since his next stop was in Richmond, he made his way there earlier than planned. Since then, he’s been getting a lot of work done and spends much of his time in a studio that he’s used through the years. “I decided to hang around because it’s not a good time to go to California,” because of concerns about the number COVID cases and the many wildfires. He also said that, despite how bad things seem right now in the country, when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, it felt even worse.

Cover of George Winston’s 2019 album “Restless Wind.” Image courtesy of RCA/Dancing Cat Records.

Winston explained his process for choosing what songs to interpret for the “Restless Wind” album, beginning with Sam Cooke’s  “A Change is Gonna Come.” “I love Sam’s music so much,” he said. “He’s the only vocalist I listened to until Jim Morrison.” Winston also recorded Cooke’s “You Send Me” on a previous album and said that only five of Cooke’s songs work as solo piano pieces. “When I work on somebody’s piece, it has to really seem to come alive and it has to be not dependent on nostalgia,” said Winston. “No matter what the original composer’s intent was, that has to happen to me or else the song doesn’t resonate with me. ”

George Winston. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

When asked if he could pick one of his long-deceased influences to go in back in time to see live, Winston offered up three: “It would have to be a tie between Fats Waller, Professor Longhair and James Booker.”

Winston did get to rub shoulders with jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, best known for the music he composed for the animated “Peanuts” TV specials including “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Guaraldi died in 1976 at the age of 46, but there were a few times in the years prior to that that Winston served as intermission pianist at some of his shows. An intermission pianist, Winston explained, was a conventional part of jazz club shows in the early ’60s and ’70s. “I played intermission piano for him, and he and I were talking, and he said that’s how he started in the early ’50s.”

In 1996, Winston released “Linus and Lucy – The Music of Vince Guaraldi” and, in 2010, “Love Will Come – The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Volume 2.”

Winston’s next album is done, though he’s not sure of the release date just yet. It’s called “A New Morning” and will benefit a food bank. Included on it will be Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and the Scottish lament “Flowers of the Forest,” on which Winston plays harmonica. Seven originals will also be featured.

The shows at Jonathan’s are limited to 50 attendees. Canned food and cash donations will be collected for the Saco Food Pantry.

George Winston
7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 21 & 22, 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23. Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, Ogunquit, $62.50.

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