“Smooth” Jazz and Smooth Wine

By Bob Johnson

Nothing lights a fire under an aficionado of “real jazz” more intensely than a discussion about the genre of music that has come to be known as “smooth jazz.”

A jazz critic for a major Chicago newspaper turns five shades of purple when anyone mentions they enjoy “smooth jazz.” It’s pretty funny to watch as the hues gradually change, becoming ever darker.

Truth be told, “smooth jazz” is a term invented by radio programmers, as you’ll read in the “blast from the past,” originally published in the August 19-26, 1999 edition of the Sonoma County Independent, that appears below.

I’ve been following the career of Peter White since the days he played with folk singer Al Stewart, whose hits include “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” In the summer of 1999, I was assigned to interview White for a feature that appeared just prior to his concert at Rodney Strong Vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif.

White plays at that venerable Sonoma County estate almost every year as part of its annual summer concert series (http://www.rodneystrong.com/index.php/visit-us/winery-events/rodney-strong-concerts). I’ve seen him play there, as well as at Thornton Winery (http://www.thorntonwine.com/jazz.html) in Southern California’s Temecula wine country.

But the most memorable wine-related Peter White concert took place not at a winery, but on the grounds of the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, Calif. Back in the day, I served as a steward for the Pacific Rim International Wine competition, which was conducted on the Orange Show grounds. For several years, the end of the competition was celebrated with an event called “An Evening of Food and Wine Under the Stars,” and it featured live music to complement the walk-around food-and-wine tasting.

Since I knew the director of the competition, Dr. James Crum, very well (http://winelinesonline.com/dedication/), one year I suggested that the Pacific Rim board bring in White to perform. James took the idea to the board, which apparently liked it because, the next year, White was the featured act at the big post-competition soiree.

In previous years, the music at the event was strictly “background” — a pleasant accompaniment to the wine and food being devoured. But the year that White played, an amazing thing happened: Attendees sat down and listened, filling the fold-up chairs that had been set up adjacent to the stage.

That year, the music was in the foreground. It was a real concert. And the crowd loved it.

Since then, White has become one of the “legends” of the “smooth jazz” scene, even though he thinks of his music as “instrumental pop.” But he is genuinely grateful for the success he has enjoyed, and it shows every time he takes the stage — whether it’s at a winery or wine event with music, or a concert with wine tasting.

I had the opportunity to see White recently in the latter setting — at the Smooth Jazz Fall Festival, held at The Redstone Room on the second floor of the River Music Experience facility and presented by Great Sounds Promotions — in Davenport, Iowa.

Before the show, there was a walk-around wine tasting. Since I was driving, I limited myself to just seven sample pours, and concentrated solely on reds. The selections ranged from a delicious Petite Sirah-based blend from an iconic California winery that is historically linked to the variety, to a well-aged Shiraz-Grenache blend from a well-known producer in Australia. My reviews are here:

2009 Concannon ‘Crimson & Clover,’ Livermore Valley

2009 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State

2008 Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy

2009 Ugly Duckling Cabernet Sauvignon, California

2009 Silver Palm Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast

2009 The Dreaming Tree Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast

2005 d’Arenberg Shiraz-Grenache, McLaren Vale, Australia

And here’s that aforementioned story I wrote about Peter White back in 1999, which the Sonoma County Independent titled, “Dream Time”…

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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 last year’s “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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As this blog entry is written in late October 2011, Peter White is preparing for his annual series of Christmas concerts, this year touring with Mindi Abair and Kirk Whalum. You can check out his full tour schedule here.

And if you scroll down to the listing for next May 11, you’ll see that the Peter White-and-wine connection will be alive and well in 2012.

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