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"I don't play that much like Vince really hardly at all," Winston says. "He's more of somebody that I play 57 of his songs. It's like I play Guaraldi, I don't play Bach. There are definitely Guaraldi techniques that I've used, but not that many. There's a certain weaving right-hand lick that I like that Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears used to do that same kind of thing. It's almost bebopish a bit. That and its variations added to my vocabulary. But I don't use too many of his techniques unless I'm playing his songs."
Winston has devoted himself to analyzing the styles of the great stride pianists Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Professor Longhair and James Booker. His latest challenge is learning the techniques of famed New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. "That's just totally impossible," he says, "but I'm better for trying. I've wanted to incorporate his stuff, his sense of creativity, certain things that he does; he's like a complete band with the R&B stuff.
"James Booker is really the basis for my piano language, how I think of the piano. What Henry Butler's doing for me is helping me break it up, keep it going and change it. I find myself doing something and sometimes going, 'No, no, no, this is just copying Henry; this isn't what I want to do. I'm doing Henry. I'm not doing me.' Which of course he would not encourage either. But it's fun to learn something and then when you do, you go, 'Yeah, but this isn't me.' It's great to have teachers because they show you the road, but ultimately, I'm not them. I can't do them as well as them. Then later it evolves into, 'you know and I don't want to.' I don't really want to be Henry Butler. I almost do. But I'd miss the other things. It's nice to not want to be somebody. It takes you so long to get there. I never wanted to be me until two or three years ago. I said, 'Okay that's good enough. Not the best, but it's good enough.' "
"Good enough" has sold millions of albums, filled concert halls and inspired numerous pianists to tackle a more melodic style, investigate stride piano lineage and learn more about Vince Guaraldi. Upcoming projects for Winston include a melodic folk album inspired by the Great Plains, another Guaraldi tribute, a Professor Longhair tribute and an album of R&B/soul ballads. Winston maintains a simple philosophy for his projects and concerts, which could explain his popularity.
"The listener's always right," he says. "They like what they like, I like what I like, and we're all correct. The listener is always right, but so is the player. The player is right, too. When I play, I try to take into account the audience and myself. We're relating here. I'm not going to play "The Saints Go Marching In" rhythm and blues style for 45 minutes, but I'm not going to play the whole December record either. So, what do we both want here? I want there to be some surprises."
George Winston performs at Rice University, January 21, 7:30 p.m.
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