By Audrey Coleman

Jeff_Peterson_-_Maui_on_My_MindThe sun had just risen over Mount Haleakala when we mounted our bikes. Encased in a hooded ski jacket provided by the tour service, I could still feel the bite of the icy air, which began to sting my cheeks as we gained speed. But an hour later, the moonscape of the Haleakala crater seemed worlds away and the lush ranch lands of its slopes came into view. I shed my jacket and enjoyed watching horses calmly grazing in the distance. I will never forget this view of verdant Maui.

Slack key guitarist Jeff Peterson pays tribute to the place where he grew up with his Grammy-nominated CD, Maui on My Mind. The son of a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy), Peterson has distinguished himself as a versatile soloist, sought – after accompanist- working with established talent such as vocalist, Amy Hanaiali’i – and, most exciting of all, as a composer.

Peterson’s compositions on this album have a gentle quality and engaging melodic fluidity. The differences in mood are, by and large, subtle with a few exceptions. Lilinoe, which means “fine mist” or, alternately could be the name of a woman, has a delicacy heightened by artful use of harmonics; by the end of my first listen, I started to feel a lump in my throat. Olinda Beauty feels bittersweet and contains gorgeous chord progressions. Nā Kupuna O Haleakalā (“The Elders of Haleakala”) may have a particular story to tell, but I wasn’t able to locate it in the liner notes. The melody is memorable and the sensitive use of dynamics along with beautifully embellished arpeggiation drew me into a reflective frame of mind.

Peterson can also put us on a country porch or at a seat around a campfire with the down home style of Keokea. The familiar slack key vamp gets its due in this charming number. With the “Aloha Tango” he is more playful still, interweaving slack key licks with Spanish/Argentinean motifs.

Arrangements of other musicians bring out Peterson’s freshness of approach in a different way. In his rendition of the traditional Portuguese song, Charmarita, made famous by Sonny Chillingworth, the guitar virtually sings out the sweet melody; he never over-embellishes, but lets the guitar do a subtle filigree around the central tune. In a favorite from the big band era, Johnny Almeida’s Maile Swing, he retains the light-hearted spirit of the original version while spinning seemingly effortless variations on it. I liked Maile Swing much more than his treatment of In the Mood, which couldn’t seem to decide if it was cool guitar jazz or Hawaiian-ized Glen Miller.

Maui on My Mind reveals Jeff Peterson’s strong cultural roots as well as his musical pedigree. Listening to his artistic choices as well as his stunning technique, it’s no surprise that he has studied not only slack key with slack key master, Ozzie Kotani, but also classical guitar with Benjamin Verdery of Yale University. With several  Na Hoku Hanohano awards (Hawaiian Grammies) and a previous Grammy (for participating in a slack key compilation), Jeff Peterson’s career is definitely on the upswing and rightly so. I look forward to hearing more from this high-riding son of a cowboy.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.