Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
Herb Ohta, Jr.: “`Ukulele Journey” (Lele Music Prod.)
Getting the obvious connection out of the way right off the bat, yes, he is the son of the world-famous `ukulele master, Ohta-San. But “Junior” (as some call him) lives in no one’s shadow. An acclaimed artist in his own right, Ohta has toured around the world, released several albums (either as a soloist or in duet settings), played on dozens of other artists’ recordings, received multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano and Hawai`i Music Award nominations, co-authored `ukulele instruction books, performed and taught for decades in Hawai`i --- you get the picture. His commitment to Hawaiian music, in particular, surpasses that of his famous father, and puts him firmly in the pantheon of contemporary Island `ukulele players.
This latest release shows Ohta continuing on a path set forth on his previous discs, but also hints that he is ready to step into the next phase of his music career. While a couple of Hawaiian classics do appear on the recording, as well as some tasty covers, it is his own compositions that shine strongest throughout. He has clearly opened his ears to all the musical styles that are part of life in Hawai`i today, including pop and reggae, but when they are filtered through his fingers, his pen and his instrument, they come out with a distinctly Island vibe, alternately lively and nahenahe.
Although Ohta has used guest musicians on previous albums, this disc features a number of special appearances from superstars, high-demand session cats and rising stars: Ledward Kaapana, Louis “Moon” Kauakahi (of the Mākaha Sons), both Nathan Aweau and Barry Flanagan (of Hapa), Chino Montero, Noel Okimoto, Daniel Ho, Jon Yamasato and others (not to mention the not-so-secret, un-credited vocalist on the album’s bonus track.) A flawless album, one that should be on the shelves of every fan of today’s Hawaiian music, as well as `ukulele lovers.
Much respect has to be given to this group, for the simple fact that they never rush to get new releases out to their hungry fans, instead preferring to spend the time and effort necessary to guarantee each album will be strong enough to carry their reputation and career forward. Only their third album in seven years, the trio is fueled by songwriter, lead singer and guitarist Bobby Moderow, along with his compatriots Bruce Spencer on `ukulele and Kahi Kaonohi playing bass, each of whom are featured as lead vocalists on a couple of tracks.
Destined to be another huge seller (and Hōkū winner, as was the case with their previous discs), this album mixes a couple of Moderow’s new songs along with fresh takes on a number of familiar Hawaiian standards, such as “Kōke`e,” “Hi`ilawe,” “Kalama`ula” and “Ku`u Pete.” Moderow takes an instrumental turn in slack key style (Ray Kāne having been one of his teachers) on the traditional mele, “Mai `Ae I Ka Hewa,” based around a Biblical passage.
Willie K and Eric Gilliom - these are two men with a sense of the silly, at least when it comes to their promotional materials, web sites and album designs. Yet the quality of composition and musicianship is, while imbued with plenty of fun, of the highest standards. Ever since these two teamed up for their self-titled debut disc last year, they’ve not been out of the spotlight, winning awards, touring and playing regular gigs (not only on their own, but as members of Mick Fleetwood’s Island Rumours band.)
New, original compositions make up the majority of the album, starting with a song that is as welcoming musically as it is lyrically, “E Komo Mai.” The remainder of the selections range from party pieces and Jawaiian-influenced love songs to songs about junker cars, roadside huli huli chicken fundraisers (makes my mouth water when I hear it), a traditional Cook Islands piece, and some live tracks.
Two talented musicmakers – their pairing seems to bringing out much of their best work in a while. A great follow-up to what was a mighty strong launch, it won’t disappoint their fans.
BRIEFLY: I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t at least make mention of the newest release from the ensemble led by composer/conductor/saxophonist/arranger/singer Matt Catingub and his Orchestra of Hawai`i (primarily folks from the Honolulu Pops Orchestra, which he leads.) “Back To Romance”(Mountain Apple) comes on the heels of last year’s “Return To Romance,” which featured lush arrangements of gorgeous standards from the American and Hawaiian songbooks, sung by top Island performers. This latest release in the same vein shines the light on “romantic men” - male vocalists and instrumentalists such as Robert Cazimero, Jake Shimabukuro, Cecilio and Kapono, Hapa, Kaukahi, Jeff Peterson, and Catingub himself. It’s not a “Hawaiian” album, per se – but it’s a thing of beauty that I could listen to over and over.
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