Pianist Peter Kater Always Comes Back to Boulder

04 Jun 2015

He’s been at the forefront of contemporary instrumental music for 30 years, from smooth jazz to healing music.

Just don’t call it ‘New Age.’

By Dave Kirby Pianist Peter Kater’s music is remarkable for its accessibility. Deeply melodic, evocative in whispering tones, emotional in subtle and nuanced cadences—Kater has mastered the tricky balance between the literal and the interpretive, making his primary musical statement while leaving space for listeners to paint their own visual landscapes. But if Kater’s artistry is welcoming and engaging, a survey of his recorded work—spanning categories self described as Smooth Jazz, Contemporary Instrumentals, Healing Music, Relaxation Music—can be a little overwhelming. Labels are, unfortunately, a necessity in today’s marketing-fueled music business, and Kater admits that following his own musical instincts and reconciling those with the realities of the business can be harder than creating the music itself. Kater has been nominated for 10 Grammy awards in the last 11 years, all them in the New Age category. It’s a remarkable achievement, but also one that means, to the outside world, that Peter Kater is a New Age pianist.

A Blessing or a Curse?

“Kind of both,” he chuckles. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do my own thing without having to fit into a box, but at the same time, from a marketing perspective, it’s challenging. It can be confusing to an audience sometimes. No one really likes the term New Age, because it’s kind of a benign throwaway category, anything that may not fall into another category [like] classical, jazz, pop, rock, rap. I try not to worry about that too much. I’m just trying to follow my muse and stay true to my own interests.”

Homage to Trailblazers

Kater is a familiar name to longtime Boulder music lovers. He moved here in the late 1970s and started off playing small clubs and doing odd gigs (including improvising piano behind Allen Ginsberg reading poetry), and recording his debut album Spirit in 1982. Impressionistic and technically pristine, the album coincided with the greater rise of New Age music and the emergence of labels like Windham Hill and, a few years later, Boulder- based Silver Wave Records. The dominant genre pianist at the time was George Winston, who was known for lengthy, highly impressionistic solo-piano excursions, and delighted crowds (and occasionally irritated purist critics) with his informally delivered concerts, frequently played barefoot. “You have to respect George for the success he had,” Kater says. “He was a piano player who captured a good sound that people liked. But the people who really inspired me and inspired a generation of musicians were people like Keith Jarrett and the Paul Winter Consort and the group Oregon. Kitaro, Deuter, Vangelis. A lot of them were playing music that was technically more jazz than what I was interested in doing, but they were innovative, playing and composing music that was capable of really great feeling of  a profound nature. I think instrumental music is capable of doing that on a much more personal level than pop music with lyrics. So I always try to pay homage to the true trailblazers who got me going.”

A Moment’s Notice

Kater returns to Boulder on July 18 in a duo setting with Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Kater and Nakai have recorded several very successful albums together and played concerts extensively from 1989 to 1999. “I had a concert tour planned in Hawaii that I was going to do with [Boulder resident] Nawang Khechog, the Tibetan flute player, and Nawang suffered a head injury and had to go into surgery, and I had five concerts all booked and promoted. I asked RC if he would step in at a moment’s notice. And he did—he  was here the next day. It felt good, so we said, ‘Let’s do some more of this.’” Kater is seemingly always working, releasing new music regularly (including a new solo piano record—Love—this year, his first in a decade), but what makes that even more astonishing is that Kater is also always moving. He relates a story about Kenny Loggins, who collaborated on Kater’s 2009 record In a Dream. “Kenny and I were talking about how often we move around,” says Kater, who currently lives in Hawaii. “I said something like, ‘I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I move more often than you do.’ So we shook on it; I think the last 10 years I had moved 11 times and he had moved 12 times. So I gave him the hundred bucks, and when I went back home, he had spent the money on a bouquet of flowers for my house.” And where was home at that time? “Actually, I honestly don’t remember…."
Dave Kirby has been writing about music for various publications since 1978. He lives in Boulder with his wife and their white German shepherd puppy.
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