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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the WCHS TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: April 10, 2017

Q&A with prolific pianist George Winston, on his way to Portland

Written by: Aimsel Ponti
Photo by Steve Lankford

Photo by Steve Lankford

Pianist George Winston just released his 14th solo piano album called “Spring Carousel” and will be playing songs from it and from a recording career that began in 1972 at a sold-out One Longfellow Square show.

Some of Winston’s best-known albums include the seasonally-themed “Autumn,” “Winter into Spring” and “December,” his two volumes of the music of Vince Guaraldi and “Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors.”

Winston started off on the organ in 1967 when he was 18 years old and switched over to piano four years later. During a phone interview from his car while he was traveling to a show in Florida, Winston spoke about the making of “Spring Carousel.”

Take a listen to “Ms Mystery 1” from “Spring Carousel”

The songs were written while he was recovering from a bone marrow transplant for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) at City of Hope, a cancer treatment center in Duarte, California. Winston had fallen ill during a show in September of 2012 and the transplant took place in November of that year.

While recuperating, Winston spent many hours at the piano in the hospital auditorium. The songs on “Spring Carousel” are 15 of the 59 songs composed and recorded during that time period.

George Winston's new album "Spring Carousel" Image courtesy of Dancing Cat/RCA Records

George Winston’s new album “Spring Carousel”
Image courtesy of Dancing Cat/RCA Records

You had the experience of such a serious illness and then the recovery process, which translated into the “Carousel” songs. When you’d go and sit at that hospital piano what would happen? Was the process of putting these songs together emotional for you? Was it cathartic? Does it reflect the arc of your diagnosis, treatment and recovery?

It was not real emotional, I was just practicing for when I went back on tour and then these songs kind of emerged and I said, “Well, I guess these songs are about this whole thing and about City of Hope and it’s gonna be a benefit record.” It was very clear to me what it was. It was more just practicing the piano and these things emerged and I went, “Yeah, well, this is all about here — the desert area in the spring, warm in the day, pretty cold at night and the treatment and City of Hope.”

Why is it called “Spring Carousel?”

Because I came up with a bunch of these circular pieces that were carousel-like in a way, swirling, like the rotation of the planets, and repetitive, swirling like music boxes, inspired by Steve Reich. His work was definitely an inspiration as well. And I came up with about 20 carousels or so, and it was gonna be a record called “Carousel” with all those, and then there were bunch of spring songs, and then I went, “Well, instead of two records, it’s really one record,” and these 15 songs seemed to work the best together. So you pick something and then what it really is emerges over time. It takes as much time as it takes. It could take 10 years. I guess this one took three years. Time is kind of like a garden or growing food; it’s ready when it’s ready, not when I tell it to be ready.

My favorite track at the moment is “Pixie # 13 in C (Gobajie).” What inspired that one?

It was inspired by James Booker’s work from New Orleans. He has a song called “Pixie” that I recorded on the “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions” Katrina benefit record, and Booker has it on his album called “Junco Partner.” So it was a medium tempo blues progression with the left hand pretty much staying toward the middle of the piano, and over time, I came up with 14 other pixies kind of with that structure, and this is one of them and this one fit on the record. And they’re all inspired by a cat I knew named Gobajie who’s part of the title.

Do you travel with your own piano?

I use what one’s there. They bring one in from a piano store. I like that there are different pianos every place. It brings out different things. The traveling there, the whole process kind of adds into the music. The topographies I’m driving through or staying in, the season. That all goes into that show, however subtlety sometimes.

How many hours or how often do you play when you’re not touring?

It can be an hour or two a day, sometimes three. It depends on what is going on that day. Sometimes none. I’m always working on a record, working on about five or six at the same time. The record coming out after this was going to be the one released first, but I decided to put it second. It’s Vol. 3 of Vince Guaraldi. That will be out next year. They are always sort of growing slowly like several gardens, and you kind of tend to each one, noticing one. I’m always making records.

 Do you have a time of day that you tend to gravitate more towards your piano?

The later at night the better. I’m definitely nocturnal. When the sun goes down, that’s my sunrise.

When did you start playing?

I started when I was 18 in 1967. I started on organ when I heard The Doors, and four years later, I switched to piano when I heard Fats Waller’s piano recordings from the ’20s and ’30s.

How are your fingers holding up? Is there anything you have to do, like massage or physical therapy types of things?

Sometimes there will be a night when I’ll give my hands a rest just by feel, just like you would do with your knees or anything. But if your hands are sore, there are essential oils and things like that you can rub on or get acupuncture. If there’s something that’s sore, there are things you can do.

Will you be bringing your guitar and harmonica to Maine? Do those come with you to all of your shows?

Sometimes I do harmonica solo concerts as well. There’s always a couple of guitar pieces and a harmonica piece in the shows, just to break up the piano sound.

George Winston

8 p.m. Sunday. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland, $35;sold-out. onelongfellowsquare.com

Donations of canned food will be collected at the door for local food banks.

 

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