Some years ago, I had the opportunity to interview “smooth jazz” superstar Peter White, a guitar player who has gained a loyal following around the world.
I’ve seen him perform countless times, including at the Thornton Winery in Southern California and Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County. In fact, wineries and wine-related events regularly are part of White’s touring schedule.
With many more concerts yet to be added for 2019, White’s current touring schedule includes an August 10 appearance at “Jazz in the Vines” in Jamesport, N.Y., and both legs of Rick Braun’s 2020 “Colors of Provence” river cruise through France.
I’ve always believed that there is a “connection” between wine and music, and that feeling is reinforced every time I see White perform in a “wine setting.”
Several CDs have followed since this story first appeared in the Sonoma County Independent, but it still paints a vivid picture of Peter White and his art. Pour of glass of your favorite wine, and enjoy this blast from the past…
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Guitar player and composer Peter White would prefer to be known as a good musician, rather than being lumped into the genre known as smooth jazz.
“I have nothing personally against the term,” he says, “but I understand how it might disturb some pure jazz players. Remember, musicians didn’t come up with the term; it was invented by radio station guys. Some people say what I play is not really jazz, and my response is: ‘I never said it was.’”
If one were required to categorize White’s music, it would fall somewhere between instrumental pop and R&B. Listening to his seven solo albums to date (save for his 1997 “Songs of the Season” Christmas album), one can hear a steady progression toward more R&B-tinged tunes.
Nineteen years of backing English folk/rock legend Al Stewart has infused White’s playing with a smart pop sensibility. His skills on the Spanish guitar were showcased on the popular song “On the Border,” part of Stewart’s epochal “Year of the Cat” album.
White’s first two solo albums, “Reveillez-Vous” in 1990 and “Excusez-Moi” in 1992, included tunes that White originally wrote for Stewart but that never saw the light of day, and perpetuated the unique interplay between acoustic guitar and saxophone made famous on Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” albums. In fact, White wrote the 1992 hit “Dreamwalk” specifically with Stewart’s sax man, Phil Kenzie, in mind.
“It takes the right players to make the guitar and sax sounds work together,” White says. “It doesn’t work well with a guy who plays loud and raucous. It works great with a guy like [jazz-pop star] Boney James, who plays a little softer but still with a lot of dynamics. He always leaves a space in his playing; he sort of slides into a phrase and fades out in the end, so it’s easy for me to slide the guitar in. It’s never jarring.”
White played a great many jazz festivals in the early years of his solo career, and says being exposed to such musicians as James, Kirk Whalum and David Sanborn motivated him to lend R&B touches to subsequent albums, including 1996’s “Caravan of Dreams” and the follow-up “Perfect Moment.”
“I loved R&B when I was growing up — the Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, Barry White,” he says. “It was a style I never broached with Al, but it works nicely, I think, with my type of playing.”
Amazingly, White never has taken a guitar lesson. He was motivated to learn the instrument after listening to a group of some repute from his native England — the Beatles.
What was it that attracted White to John, Paul, George, and Ringo?
“Their trousers,” he quips without missing a beat. “No, seriously, it was that the guitar was so prominent in their music. And then watching the video of their appearance at Shea Stadium with all the screaming girls… I thought, ‘That looks like fun.’”
So White went about learning the instrument “one string at a time, starting with the lowest string. Later, I remember watching Eric Clapton playing all these really high notes up at the top of the neck, and I didn’t even know you could do that.”
Other influences included Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and when White visited America for the first time on Al Stewart’s 1975 tour, the first thing he did was purchase a Les Paul guitar “because I wanted to be like Jimmy Page.” Coincidentally, within a week, White — with his new Les Paul in hand — ran into Page in a hotel elevator.
“All I could do was look at him and say, ‘You’re Jimmy Page,’” he recalls.
White’s basic shyness caused him to be “scared to death” when he first stepped out of the background to front his own band. But, he says, he enjoys it now, especially when his music motivates an audience to dance.
“I don’t take that as an insult at all,” he says. “In fact, it’s a great compliment. It’s the ultimate in audience participation because you know your music has gotten through to them.”
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Much like savoring a great glass of wine.