Noel Okimoto: Beyond Hawaii
‘Always learning,’ Na Hoku-winning drummer locks in on his own fascinating, artful rhythm
Noel Okimoto is a popular, versatile, in-demand drummer and award-winning jazz recording artist. His work on a self-titled, classical/jazz debut with Megan Bledsoe Ward’s Pacific Harp Project garnered a 2016 Na Hoku Hanohano Award (Hawaii’s Grammys) for “Instrumental Album of the Year.” His own 2004 Ohana debut earned him “Jazz Album of the Year” at the Hawaii Music Awards and the Na Hoku Awards, as well as four out of five stars from Downbeat Magazine.
He also happens to be, quite possibly, the youngest musician to have joined the union, back in May 1970 — at age 11. In those days, he’d tag along with his drummer dad George Okimoto to casual gigs in Waikiki. The young Okimoto sat in with the Ebb Tides occasionally, learning the ropes, and then, one fateful day, was asked to fill in for good when his dad started gigging with another band.
The Ebb Tides went to a lot of trouble for the gifted little drummer boy. Besides the union membership, they also had to apply for child labor and liquor commission permits for him to be able to play at every gig.
If that’s how good Noel Okimoto was then, imagine how much better he is now, playing toe-to-toe with the big boys: Gabe Baltazar, Jimmy Borges, Sadao Watanabe, Gene Harris, Bud Shank, the Woody Herman Orchestra, Jake Shimabukuro, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Hutcherson, Richie Cole, and many others.
In 1988, he auditioned and made it into the historic Royal Hawaiian Band, eventually earning a place as the percussion section leader. Quite the feather in his cap. As goodwill ambassadors, the Royal Hawaiian Band musicians perform all over the world and closer to home in well over 300 shows and parades annually, not to mention Friday shows at ‘Iolani Palace and Sundays at Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand.
Being a part of the RHB — a paid, steady job — enables Okimoto the freedom to pursue his own creative projects, like the acclaimed Rhythm Summit with friends, bassist Dean Taba and taiko drummer Kenny Endo, lots of other fun gigs, and session work with quite a number of big names in and out of town, including Jeff Richman, Tom Scott and Brittni Paiva, DeShannon Higa and his SubTonic Orchestra, Santana bassist Benny Rietveld, David Benoit, and Michael Paulo.
It’s really hard not to gawk at Okimoto’s stacked resume, he’s played with so many true superstars and legends. But name-dropping is the last thing you’ll get from this insanely gifted, but super-unassuming musician.
Ke Ola O Na Mele caught up with Noel Okimoto to talk story for the “Member Spotlight”:
It’s been awhile. How have you been?
I am fine. Turned 61 last October, which means I’ve been playing music for 51 years. Loved every minute of it.
You’re quite well-known in Hawaii as a likeable, all-around, go-to musician comfortable with almost any style. What’s your favorite kind of music to play, and why?
I’d like to say that I listen to many styles of music, which have influenced me, but if I have to pick a favorite, it would be jazz. There is room for creativity in jazz. Freedom to make choices, which I enjoy.
Of all the instruments to play, you chose percussion and naturally, by extension, vibes. I’ve read that your dad, who played the drums for a living, had a huge influence on that choice. In fact, you played his drums for a school talent show while he recovered from back surgery in the hospital. You were 10. Tell me how that felt. I know you practiced quite a bit beforehand. But you must’ve been scared to death to perform in front of your classmates.
Yes, my dad George Okimoto is the reason I am a musician. Having access to his drums and record collection got me started. Regarding the talent show, I wasn’t nervous about performing, I was more concerned about setting up the drums. I hadn’t done it before. I learned how to play the bossa nova from listening to my dad practice. The bossa nova was new to U.S. drummers and my dad was working with Ohta-san, who started playing bossa nova music. Thus, my dad had to learn this new music. I played with a 45 record that my dad recorded with Ohta-san called, “Summer Nights.”
What does playing — either in front of a live audience or in the recording studio — do for you that nothing else does? I imagine it’s a kind of escape.
Well, to be good at anything, you have to put in a lot of “alone” time. For a musician, that means practicing, listening to music, and now, you can watch music on YouTube. The pay-off for that solitude is playing music with people. So yes, it’s maybe an escape from that. Playing live and the studio are quite different. The main difference being the instant access to what was just played. That’s why studio musicians get so good. It’s because they get to hear themselves right after playing something. Their perception of knowing how something they play sounds becomes very keen. Playing live is about the interaction with the people you are playing with.
Jazz musicians either love to play in a collaborative, collective group, or be out there on their own. What kind of musician are you, and why?
If you mean being a sideman versus leader, I like doing both. Either way, it is always collaborative. As a leader, you are more responsible for picking the tunes, and programming the set. My function and responsibilities as a drummer remain the same. Given the opportunity to lead, recently I prefer to lead from the vibes. It becomes more specific, where I’ll pick tunes that work well for the instrument.
Do you think you’d have gone into drumming as a profession if your dad was, like, an accountant instead? How has he influenced you to be the musician you are today? Who else are your musical influences?
I really don’t know what I’d be doing now if my dad wasn’t a musician. He provided the initial inspiration and practical access to musical stuff. Then, he provided the contact with professional musicians, which I took advantage of at a very young age. I was playing with musicians that were my dad’s age. Larry Fukunaga, the founder of the EbbTides, gave me my first professional opportunity at age 11. I was fortunate to play with and learn from great musicians, such as Gabe Baltazar, Henry “Boxhead” Yoshino, Tomo Fukui, Francis Hookano, Charlie Abing, and many more.
You can play all styles, but jazz is your baby. What about jazz in particular interests you?
Well, jazz will always transcend fads and trends, so it will always be musically relevant. The best stuff especially so. I can go back and listen to an old jazz recording and hear stuff that I didn’t get before. At the same time, it really cannot be mastered, because so much of jazz involves improvisation. Improvising and interacting with other musicians is the challenge but is what makes the music fun.
Jazz musicians often prefer to play for themselves and each other, while tuning out the audience. What do you think about this?
I think any performing artist thrives on response from an audience. At the same time, you have such great responsibility playing your instrument and interacting with the other musicians, I personally don’t give it much thought in the moment. Regard for the audience for me, comes at the planning and programming stage. A balanced program of some familiar stuff and new, sometimes original stuff. Of course, there are performers that are blessed with charisma and are natural entertainers. That goes a long way in connecting with the audience.
What do you think you bring to the music, whether it’s your own or someone else’s? How would you describe your own personal style?
I love music, and I feel blessed to be able to play music. I try to bring that to any situation I’m in. More specifically, I like to be prepared. If it’s a style of music I am not that familiar with, I will study. Sometimes, especially in jazz, there is no preparation. I love those times too… you just have to be open.
You’ve played with quite a number of world-famous, legendary celebrities. The list is impressive. Who have you played with that people would be even more impressed to know? What is it like to be onstage with these huge celebrities, and to know that they wanted you as their drummer?
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play with many great people. Most recently, the great Mike Mainieri was here to perform with Curtis Abe and the Iolani school jazz bands. If I may back up a little, Mike Mainieri is an iconic legendary musician. I have been a fan of his for 40 years. In 2015, I went to New York City to study with him for a week. That was a fantastic, life-changing experience. That led to me asking Curtis about Mike coming to guest with Iolani school’s jazz bands. Curtis made it happen. I got to spend a week with Mike, driving him around and got to play drums with him, and got another vibe lesson. Doesn’t get much better than that.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
I was playing percussion with Ray Charles, for an Oracle event on Hawaii island. I had a written arpeggiated vibe intro to the tune, “Being Green.” At rehearsal, Ray just started playing the intro on the piano, which I noticed, so I joined him. To which, he yelled out, “That’s it!” Well, at the performance, the conductor who was new, counted the tune off at the wrong tempo. At that split-second, I decided to go with the conductor. Ray was very angry and leaned over to the conductor and was yelling profanities at her. He then started to play the tune (at the correct tempo) by himself. I stopped, and joined him as soon as I could. Whew, that was tense.
You joined the union at a very young age — 11 — when you started playing in your dad’s casual band. What’s been your experience with the musicians union and why would you recommend other musicians join?
My dad and other older musicians instilled in me the importance of the collective strength of a union. I became a member in May of 1970. I was an 11-year-old, gigging musician. Larry Fukunaga and the Ebb Tides filed union contracts for every gig. They also had to file a liquor commission permit and child labor permit for every job I did with them. I am very grateful for the trouble they went through to have me in the band. It’s important for a musician to have representation and the musicians union provides that. I am close to collecting my pension and again, I am grateful to all who encouraged me to be a union member.
You recently put out a second album Play with Megan Bledsoe Ward’s classical-jazz group, Pacific Harp Project, and have been touring to promote the album. Pacific Harp Project’s a slight departure from your usual straight-ahead style, with the classical harp leanings. How did you adjust your playing to blend in, or did you hear things in the style that you could add your own twist to?
Megan does a fantastic job with the band and its projects. With improvisation being a part of her musical vision, it is very natural for me. In all musical settings, the music tells you what to play. No different here for me. I am thankful for Megan and the band embracing some of my compositions. That has been more of an adjustment for me. Writing music that would be appropriate for the harp and the band’s sensibilities. Again, Megan makes all of that happen. I am honored to a part of this group.
How have you changed and grown as a musician from when you first started out?
I am always learning, seeking information, practicing, listening to music. As a result, you build a vocabulary that allows you to express yourself. The aging process is also very humbling. The ease at which I could play stuff on the drums as a youngster is more challenging now. On the other hand, I think I am a better musician now. A broader vocabulary to which I can make better musical choices.
What else is going on in your music career?
I am at a very comfortable point in my career, where I get to play with people I like as musicians and as friends. I am also doing a little bit more teaching and have been enjoying it. Last year, I started learning to play the steel pan. It’s a sound I always liked. It has been challenging, as the fluency you have on one instrument doesn’t exist on the new one. Although, it has been fun.
You’re one of the rare local musicians able to make a living in Hawaii. What’s your secret?
I am very grateful for that. There is no secret, I was fortunate to become a member of the historic Royal Hawaiian Band 30 years ago. There are not many musical jobs like the RHB anywhere, but to have it here was a complete blessing for me. I get to play with great musicians on a daily basis and serve our community. When the band plays for children at schools and the students see people blowing air through instruments and making music right in front them, that is a rare priceless moment these days. Or when the band plays for our kupuna at senior facilities and seeing them singing along to some of the old Hawaiian songs, that is very gratifying.
What’s the music scene like here?
The music scene has changed over the years. Technology has something to do with that. Far less live group recordings. There is recording going on, just done differently. This is true everywhere. What hasn’t changed is the commitment one has to make to working hard to get to a level of fluency on a musical instrument. There are still people making that commitment and there are still people who want to hear it… live on stage.
Dream gig? So many great musicians I would love to have an opportunity to play with. I think every jazz musician would say, Chick and Herbie. They were both such a huge part of when I first started playing.
From the Winter 2020 issue, Ke Ola O Na Mele