Too many bands claim to be all about jazz. They hail from all the right places: NYC, L.A., Chicago. They drop the right names: Miles, Metheny, Monk. But all too often, when it comes time to put up, these fly-by-nights sound like anything but jazz with their high-stepping, high-falutin’ ideas of cross-cultural fusion taken to 11 on the volume knob.
Rarely do we come across jazz musicians who know how to play it right. Well, ladies and gentlemen, meet the Honolulu Jazz Quartet, made up of some of Hawaii’s finest, hardest-working jazz musicians: bassist John Kolivas, pianist Dan Del Negro, drummer Adam Baron, and tenor/soprano saxophonist Tim Tsukiyama.
To the tourist-minded, Hawaii’s only about the waves, hula dancers, Book ’em, Dano, and luaus. Jazz, from Hawaii of all unlikely places? Believe it. HJQ formed fairly recently, about nine years ago, out of a need to get the jazz out, amazing, focused, collaborative real jazz. With 2003’s Sounds Of The City, 2007’s Tenacity, and several major gigs, including a jaunt to Seattle’s Triple Door, HJQ has quietly made a name for itself doing what used to be done, taking care of business playing true jazz the way it was meant to be played.
Individually, these guys can and have held their own, going on tour with the famous Hawaiian slack key guitarist Keola Beamer (whose “Real Old Style” in Tenacity was turned into a stylized instrumental), doing gigs with international jazz artists of Tiger Okoshi’s, Herbie Mann’s, George Benson’s, Arturo Sandoval’s, and John Pizzarelli’s caliber, as well as local legends Jimmy Borges, Azure McCall, Gabe Baltazar, and Betty Loo Taylor.
Now that we’ve got some of the credentials out of the way, listen to their second CD, Tenacity, and hear what Hawaii musicians can do. Of particular, haunting note is track #4, “The Indians,” written by John Kolivas, the band’s leader. It starts off soft, a piano, a brush of percussion, and then the sax introduces a sad melody that’s replayed in gentle variations throughout. The song itself was written as a kind of homage to Kolivas’ late grandfather, Lawrence Kang, and stories Kang would tell about life in Hawaii. Kang’s influence on Kolivas — through baseball — left a lasting legacy and this song shows.
A memorable song that typifies another way jazz works is #7’s “Chillin’ At The Crib” by Dan Del Negro. Negro wrote this ballad on request, to capture the feel of locals doing what locals love to do, taking it easy, “relaxing at home, enjoying some music, wine, and good food.” It takes a simple but curvaceous melody and builds incrementally into a fully fledged jazz standard, allowing instruments like the piano and the sax to fill the gaps creatively. Of all the songs on this CD, “Chillin’…” plays the most like straight-ahead jazz does and should in all the major Mainland clubs you hear about.
Another fun feature of jazz — along the lines of improv — is the occasional tendency to play with chords, borrow riffs from other songs, and incorporate them into the current track. HJQ does this greatly in #8, Kolivas’ “The Keez Is In The Car,” a local interpretation (in the pidgen-English title and the inspiration of driving around Ala Moana). It starts off as an original take, then adds the familiar strains of the “Pink Panther” theme towards the latter half.
“Wayne’s Bounce,” another Kolivas original, borrows heavily from Anita Baker’s “Been So Long” (from her 1985 Grammy-award-winning Rapture album) percussive intro to my untrained ears. Kolivas actually wrote it in the theme of “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter then done by Terrence Blanchard.
Take a listen for yourself. If you’re jazz enough.
Review first appeared in Examiner Feb. 2, 2010.