Reprising their rich history of recording together, pianist Peter Kater and Native American flute virtuoso R. Carlos Nakai have once again joined forces on their first joint release in over a decade. Entitled Ritual, the album also features accompaniment by Paul Winter Consort alumni, Paul McCandless on soprano sax, English horn, and oboe, Jaques Morelenbaum on cello, who is best known for performing with Sting, and the ethereal vocals of Trisha Bowden who also served as this album’s executive producer, as well as recording with Peter on his last two Grammy-nominated albums, Light Body and Illumination. Judging from the music on Ritual, the long years of separation have done nothing to diminish the chemistry between this gifted duo.
And speaking of chemistry, the fact that the album was totally improvised is a testament to the magic that flows between these two. In Peter’s own words: “This recording is completely improvised through the grace of being present, listening and responding whole-heartedly from within the void… the womb of all creativity. It is an offering and invitation for us all to meet in this place of pure beingness that transcends time, duality and concept. It is an expression of the totality and gift of each moment and the awareness that the experience of this journey is it’s own reward.” In an interview, Peter spoke about the creative process behind the recording: “He and I were in different rooms recording at the same time and every track is as it was played as it was recorded without any edits, or planning or overdubs or changing things. His and my performances are totally stream of consciousness, stream of music – channeled I guess you could say. We are witnessing the music as much as we’re performing it.”
Ritual is more than merely a reunion of two old musical friends. Peter and R. Carlos had a purpose in mind for this music – a mission, if you will. According to Peter: “He and I wanted to make a CD that really focused on the idea of peace. For obvious reasons the world is so crazy these days. There is so much going on in people’s individual lives that we really wanted a record that just had the essence of peace in it.” They certainly seem to have achieved their goal, and then some. In fact, Peter calls it “one of the best albums certainly that he and I have done together and probably one of the better albums of my career.” And that is saying lot, considering the extensive and critically acclaimed catalog of music they have together and individually.
The first sounds heard on the first track, “Meeting at Twilight,” are those of R. Carlos Nakai’s flute. Right from the start, I was taken by his mastery of the instrument, his use of vibrato, and the spirit behind his playing. As Peter joins in on piano and Paul McCandless on reed instruments, the song is alternately mellow and soaring, taking the listener on their journey of musical communion. It’s a wonderful start to the album and hints at the diversity contained within. The sonorous sound of Jaques’ cello adds a deeply soulful texture that blends beautifully with Peter’s piano on the the intro of “Standing As One,” as it does throughout the album. The earthiness of their playing provides solid ground for the flute of R. Carlos to glide gracefully over, evoking for me, the image of an eagle in flight above a red rock canyon. Adding to the atmosphere are the wordless ambient vocals of Trisha Bowden, who is becoming well known for these beautiful ethereal textures she graces Peter Kater’s recordings with.
There was something hauntingly familiar about the opening chord progression on a track called “Invoking the Elements.” I couldn’t identify it at first, but as I listened, I found it vaguely reminiscent of a very slowed down version of the intro to the classic tune, “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. This is not to say it sounded exactly like it, but there was a distant similarity there, at least to my ear. Not to draw too much of a comparison, but Peter’s piano solo in the song’s midsection is stunning and adds a dramatic flair to the song’s mellow ambience. A song called “The Offering” really embodies the sense of peace that the artists intended to imbue their music with, and is rich with heartfelt sentiment. I particularly liked the passages where Trisha’s vocals blended in unison with long sustained notes of the other accompanying instruments.
At over twelve and half minutes in length, “Space Within” is the longest track on the album. It is also the only one that features just Peter and R. Carlos without other musicians. This piece was very special to Peter and in an interview, he shared the following about it: “The intimacy between he (R. Carlos) and I on this song was the most connected, the most deep. He and I were totally in the zone for this song, the whole way through. And that’s why it lasted for twelve and a half minutes because we didn’t want to leave the space.” As the title implies, there a spaciousness to the music that is quite meditative. In addition to showcasing some of R.Carlos’ most exquisite flute work, he also sends his prayers skyward in the form of sacred chanting and spoken word. Peter’s piano playing, which can best be described as “elegant,” creates the perfect background for this inspired duet. You can feel how “in the zone” they were for this.
A piece called “Envisioning,” really reflected the improvisational nature of the music, as it evolved through different passages, culminating in a free-flowing ending that I quite enjoyed. This feeling sustains into the last track, the appropriately titled “Dream Dances,” which is another extended piece at over 11 minutes long. Dreamy is the keyword here, with R.Carlos’ whispered vocals, and later chanting giving the music a far-away feel. I also appreciated how Trisha’s vocals were multi-tracked with delay to create an Enya-like choir effect. The ensemble playing on this track is magnificent and offered some of my favorite moments on the album. As a long time fan of Paul McCandless, I appreciated his many tasteful contributions to this recording.
Listening to Ritual, one of the things I focused on was the stylistic diversity and virtuosity of Peter’s piano work. I must admit that I was quite taken by his “Light Body” album where he played synthesizers predominantly. However, with this being a totally acoustic album, I listened to it from a different perspective and was extremely impressed with his skills as a pianist. Being the foundation instrument in this grouping he did a stellar job of providing the musical terrain for the other musicians to walk upon. Which brings me to commenting on how beautifully each of them played, both on their own and in combination. R. Carlos Nakai is an undisputed master of the Native flute and any project he graces with it is uplifted by it. In addition to his purely musical gifts, he brings a spiritual presence that is illuminating. The interplay between Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai on Ritual is pure magic. Although it has been a decade since they have played together, their creative bond is as strong as ever, and perhaps even more so. My only hope is that we don’t have to wait another 10 years for their next recording.