In the era ruled by the electric guitar, British-born, LA-based Peter White reigns supreme as one the world's greatest masters of the nylon-string acoustic guitar. From the time he burst on the scene with rock legend Al Stewart in the seventies and singer Basia in the eighties to his session work with Richard Elliot, Jeff Golub, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and Boney James, White's fabulous fingers continue to showcase the timeless tones and timbres that come from wood, skin and an expansive musical imagination.
Smile, set for release on Heads Up, a division of Concord Music Group, is White's fourteenth recording as a leader, and his scintillating, contemporary jazz sound is buttressed by his equally-impressive command of several instruments and augmented by an impressive array of special guests, including vocalist Mindi Abair, trumpeter Rick Braun, soprano saxophonist Euge Groove, keyboardist Philippe Saisse, bassist Nate Phillips, violinist (and daughter) Charlotte White, Ramon Yslas on bongos and vocalist Stevo Theard.
"This CD is my third recording for Concord of all original songs," White says. "It started with Good Day (2009) and continued with Here We Go (2012). What I try to do on every single album is produce a story that has adventures; that has different styles that take you to different places."
The ten tracks on Smile reflect the wide reach of White's musical horizons, which emanate from contemporary jazz and branch out into R&B, classical and world music vistas. White's nuanced and nimble fingers take the listener on an aural movie, set in a multitude of musical places and spaces.
The title track kicks off with some spirited vocals from Abair. "I've done hundreds of shows with Mindi - she's a great friend," White says. "So I asked her to sing the lead part. And she did a great job." Abair also sings on "Hold Me Close," which features Stevo Theard's jazzy vocals. "On that song, Stevo and Mindi were singing in unison," says White. "Then Stevo started scatting and improvising, and I thought - this is great, something new for me that I haven't recorded before."
Smile's other tracks, "Head Over Heels," "In Rainbows," "Floating In Air," "Coming Home," "Nightfall" and "Awakening (Jordan's Song)," written to mark the twenty-first birthday of a friend's daughter, all have equal and evocative doses of quiet storm, anthemic, atmospheric, Latin, Motown and uptempo musical tableaus, showcasing White's poetic and piercing plectral prowess.
Two selections stand for their special subject matter. "‘Beautiful Love' is my tribute to Barry White," the guitarist fondly recalls. "I was sixteen or seventeen when I heard him back home in England. He did those long intros...So this was my attempt to do something like that - to have the intro just build. I wrote ‘Don Quixote's Final Quest' (co-written with keyboardist Freddie Ravel) a long time ago, but I almost didn't put it on the album, because it was so different. It took us three days to mix the song - there are so many elements in it. It's my tribute to ‘Classical Gas' by Mason Williams, which influenced me to take up the Spanish guitar when I was a kid. I was heavily into rock and roll. But this guitar being played finger-style had so much power, I said, ‘Wow! I want to play guitar like this.'"
Born in 1954 in Luton, and raised in Letchworth - both suburbs of London, White played the clarinet, trombone, violin and piano before settling on the electric guitar, and, like most kids of his era, he fell under the electric spell of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, before he crossed over into the acoustic realm, which was also encouraged when his brother, pianist Danny White, accidently destroyed his electric axe.
White started his professional career at the age of nineteen. The next year he joined Al Stewart and stayed with him for two decades. Originally hired as a pianist, White's first big break was on Stewart's 1976 hit "The Year of the Cat," and he also co-wrote many songs on Stewart's 1978 LP, Time Passages. White later moved to Los Angeles and formed the band Shot in the Dark. His brother Danny was one of the founding members of the British pop group Matt Bianco, which included singer Basia. When she went solo, the guitarist and his brother recorded several albums with her, including her 1987 debut, Time and Tide, and the 1990 follow-up, London Warsaw New York.
"I learned a whole lot from Al Stewart," White says. "How to write a song; how to record a song, how to perform onstage and talk to the audience...It's impossible for that not to rub off after being with him for twenty years. He was very big on songs having an instrumental motif that runs through the music, and I have that same concept in my music now. With Basia, there was a lot of jazz in the music; a lot more saxophone, a lot more jazzy chords and playing in flat keys. I realized that there's a lot more to music than just 1-2-3-4 rock ‘n' roll."
After years of session work with some of the best contemporary jazz stars, including Richard Elliot, Warren Hill, Marc Antoine and Boney James, White struck out on his own in 1990 and recorded his debut album, Reveillez-Vous, that same year. His previous recordings as a leader include Glow (2001), Confidential (2004), Playin' Favorites (2006), Good Day (2009) and Here We Go (2012), featuring Kirk Whalum and David Sanborn, all of which ranked at the top of the Billboard Jazz charts. He also participates in the critically acclaimed Guitars and Saxes tours, and he created his annual Peter White Christmas Tour, which grew out of the success of his two holiday albums, Songs of the Season (1997) and A Peter White Christmas (2007).
On his latest CD Smile, Peter White proves yet again that he doesn't have to plug in to electrify audiences. "People have told me that when I play electric guitar, it sounds good," he says. "But as soon as I play acoustic guitar, it sounds distinctive. And that's because I put what I learned from playing the electric guitar and apply it to the acoustic guitar. It's very easy for me to go that route. My musical voice speaks on the nylon-string guitar."