Cover Story

Fresh off the road from his sixth tour with Guitars & Saxes, the superstar guitarist and devoted smooth jazz dad hits the road with Rick Braun and Mindi Abair for the 4th annual A Peter White Christmas tour .

By Jonathan Widran &
Melanie Maxwell

Even before he starts talking about how excited he is about headlining the fourth annual, 25-city A Peter White Christmas tour with Rick Braun and Mindi Abair, Peter White comes up with two great headlines about how best to convey his life and career in 2006. Coming off a crazy morning running around with his 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, he offers “The reality of being a smooth jazz dad.” Then, reflecting on another whirlwind year that saw him playing over 80 dates, 60 with Guitars & Saxes (touring all summer and fall with Gerald Albright, Jeff Golub and Richard Elliot), he says, “Jakarta, London, Warsaw, Anchorage and every place in between!” 

Last February, White played the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, on a bill with Albright, Wayman Tisdale, Dave Koz, Kirk Whalum and Jonathan Butler. In October, just before Guitars & Saxes closed the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival’s third weekend with a rousing Sunday night performance, he played the Pizza Express in London (where the British native’s mother always comes to see him). Then he jumped over to Poland to play Congress Hall before 2,000 fans in Warsaw. In late October, Guitars & Saxes––which White has been a part of for six of its dozen years––also played to audiences in Fresno, California and Anchorage, Alaska.

Reflecting his love for San Diego (also the title of a hit song from his Perfect Moments CD), White wraps up his Christmas tour in America’s Finest City on Dec. 23. He then returns on New Year’s Eve to perform with Guitars & Saxes for the Jazz Spectacular at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine.

The famed smooth jazz guitarist recently scored his 14th No. 1 Radio & Records airplay hit with “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” from his new album, Playin’ Favorites. “I know the music business is often geared around numbers and units sold,” he says, “but I rarely pay attention to cold statistics because looking at sales figures doesn’t give me anything close to the thrill of fans telling me how much they like one of my songs, that it touched them or meant something special to them or even relaxes them. I’m very appreciative of the success I’ve had at radio, but really, what keeps any of us musicians going is the pat on the back from the fans who come up to us after the show. The interaction with people is what this is all about.”

White’s popularity and adoration by his fans elevated his smooth jazz stardom to the next level when one of his most enthusiastic fans, Joan Lynch, formed a Peter White fan club in 1999. The Caravan, the Official Fan Club of Peter White, currently boasts a group of 453 members (including sponsors and complimentary affiliates), spanning five continents and seven countries, according to Lynch, the self-appointed fan club president. Members stay apprised of White happenings and sightings through periodic newsletters and updates on the website, www.peterwhitefanclub.com. At times, their membership also offers them special seating arrangements, as well as after-show meet-and-greet opportunities at White’s concerts.

“It’s never easy to figure out exactly why the smooth jazz audience is so loyal and they come back year after year to these great festivals, winery gigs, concerts and cruises,” White adds. “Besides liking the music, I think it’s the fact that we make ourselves available for chatting and autographing. The audience identifies with us. We’re all around the same age and we’re very consistent in our touring, unlike pop stars that come around on tour every few years and have an entourage protecting them from the fans. The venues are comfortable and people know we put our hearts in the music show after show, year after year.”

Aside from his exciting performances and engaging way of connecting with his fans, White’s personal success is due greatly to his incredible songwriting, which has given smooth jazz a handful of songs that have become true genre standards over the past 16 years––“Bueno Funk,” “Promenade,” “Venice Beach,” “Dreamwalk” and “San Diego,” among others. Yet he’s been equally successful with cover songs like “Who’s That Lady,” “The Closer I Get To You” and the new “What Does It Take.” 

In this time when instrumental cover songs are at an all time high on smooth jazz radio and so many artists are doing all cover albums, it might seem that White was simply jumping on the commercial bandwagon in recording Playin’ Favorites. Not only does he insist that’s not the case––he says no one at his management or label even suggested he do a cover album–– but it’s actually a follow-up to a similarly themed album he put out in 1994. He says he was actually ahead of his time some 12 years ago when he released Reflections, an all-cover album which in recent years has become more popular now than when it was originally released. 

He says that back then, people told him it was a mistake to make this kind of album because nobody was making cover projects. “Interestingly,” he says, “the shift in the format had something to do with its official (format) name change from new adult contemporary (NAC) to smooth jazz. Suddenly, cover songs and classic pop vocals were in, world music and new age were out, and everything changed dramatically. Which in a sense was good luck for me because ‘The Closer I Get To You’ didn’t make much of a splash initially but is now played all the time.”

White likens the success a lot of smooth jazz artists are having with new instrumental versions of classic songs to the popularity that singer Steve Tyrell is having in the traditional jazz vocal realm, or Rod Stewart in pop. In recent years, Tyrell has scored numerous hit albums adding his own stylized charm to standards by legends like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The guitarist recently saw Tyrell perform and was fascinated by how he liked the songs based on the new versions when he never much cared for the originals.

“What I love about guys like Steve is that he’s doing things his own way, not trying to copy Sinatra like most people would,” says White. “I take the same approach to the arrangements on Playin’ Favorites. I just don’t see the point in copying the original. The challenge is taking a great song and making it your own. I’ve done two Isley Brothers songs now, and changed the tempo on both. I slowed down the original groove of ‘Who’s That Lady?’ and sped up ‘For the Love of You.’ And on ‘What Does It Take,’ I play the classic sax part on the guitar, using the horn only as an echo. 
“So these are great songs done in a fresh new way,” he adds, “and I think there’s always going to be room in people’s hearts for that. I probably won’t be doing another cover album for 10 years, but my take on this whole trend is that it allows artists to take an unselfish view of their own music, opening the door to playing other people’s songs that have stood the test of time.” 
    
For White, playing those favorites 100 or so days a year means that there are still 265 others to spend with Robin, his wife of 10 years, and daughter, Charlotte.

The “reality” he talks about involves the alarm going off at 7 a.m., waking up Charlotte and helping dress her and brush her teeth, making her breakfast and taking her to kindergarten. The guitarist has also taken a hands-on volunteer role at her private school in Northridge as the dad in charge of fixing the sand pit; recently, Charlotte has been helping him reinforce the pit with edging. 

When they’re not doing this kind of work, they’re swimming in the backyard pool (in the summer), playing soccer, punching beach balls in the air, or riding around the neighborhood with Charlotte on the front of his scooter, waving to people along the way. White says Charlotte has her own scooter, but has more fun riding on his. “Because I’m away a lot and she misses me, I try to play with her as much as I can when I’m home,” he says. “I think guys like myself, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot and Jeff Golub, the ones who started their smooth jazz lives as singles and are now smooth dads, have managed to keep our careers intact only because we married strong, capable wives who understand this is what we do. This is how we make our living.

“I remember when I was towards the end of the first Christmas tour I headlined in 2003, someone asked me if I was going to do another one,” he says. “I told that person, ‘My wife will insist on it once she sees that I made some money doing it! It’s better than staying home.’ We started small and now it’s evolved into an amazing tradition everyone can look forward to. I look at my whole career this way. When I first heard Acoustic Alchemy on (94.7) the Wave and realized I could do my own acoustic guitar album, I wasn’t thinking long-term, more like, let’s just see what happens. When I was younger, I just aspired to being a guy in a rock band, which I got to do for years with Al Stewart. Now when I stop and think about it, it’s really wild having a whole career playing instrumental music. I don’t think I ever could have planned any of it.”

Peter White is scheduled to perform on A Peter White Christmas featuring Rick Braun and Mindi Abair at 8 p.m. on Dec. 22 in Fresno and on Dec. 23 in San Diego, California. White is also performing with Guitars & Saxes at the New Year’s Eve Jazz Spectacular on Dec. 31, 7 p.m., at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine. For tickets or more information on all of these shows,visit www.jazzconcerts.com online. To access White’s website, which includes his complete tour schedule, log on to www.peterwhite.com.

  Discography  
1990 Reveillez-Vous Chase Music
1991 Excusez-Moi Sin-Drome
1993 Promenade Sin-Drome
1994 Reflections  Sin-Drome
1996 Caravan of Dreams Columbia
1997 Songs of the Season Sony
1998 Perfect Moment Columbia
2001 Glow Columbia
2004 Confidential Columbia
2006 Playin’ Favorites Sony Legacy