BY MELORA PURELL
Special to NHN
What makes a Grammy award-winning performer nervous? According to John Keawe, Hawaiian slack-key guitar player from North Kohala, the nerves come from doing something kind of different for him – playing jazz.
Keawe will be featured in the opening performance of the four-day Big Island Jazz and Blues Festival event, playing his guitar at the Blue Dragon on Thursday evening, May 31.
“I’m excited,” he said about the jazz event. “It’s something I’ve never done.”
Keawe is an accomplished musician who has recorded ten albums, played at slack-key festivals, and received multiple Na Hoku Hanohano awards, as well as a Grammy for Best Hawaiian Music Album in 2005 for the album “Masters of Slack Key Guitar Volume 2.”
Although his own parents were musical, he was not brought up in the traditions of Hawaiian music. His interest in slack-key guitar was sparked when he heard Gabby Pahinui’s album when he came back home to Hawaii in 1972 after serving in the Navy. He taught himself to play, first by copying the music of the neighborhood folks who would play music on the porch, then later by developing his own unique slack-key style.
Keawe describes his music as “honest.” He plays and writes music about life, family, and things going on around him in small-town Kapaau. His most recent album, “Play With Me, Papa,” reflects his current role as caregiver for two of his granddaughters, who sing with him on the title track of the CD. His wife, Hope, is a hula dancer and they often perform together at local venues.
Playing at a jazz festival is not the first “out of the box” experience for Keawe. He worked as an “artist in the schools” and taught a group of second through sixth graders at Hookena School how to write songs.
This year, nine of Keawe’s songs were written out for orchestra and he performed them with the Kamuela Philharmonic. Improvisation is a hallmark of slack-key guitar music, so the rigors of following a score were challenging for Keawe, who doesn’t read music.
“I had to play it exactly the same way,” he said, “no improvisation.”
For the Jazz and Blues Festival, Keawe is once again creating something original, an innovative synthesis of music styles that he is calling “slack-key jazz.” He is writing new music using a D6 tuning, not a traditional way to tune the guitar to produce a Hawaiian slack-key sound, but one that still creates an upbeat instrumental. He hopes to debut the new song, tentatively titled “Slazz,” at the festival.
“Slack-key and jazz have similarities,” said Keawe.
He said that they both include a lot of improvisation, and they use a musical device called “turnarounds” to move from one section to another. Jazz and slack-key might be two different musical languages, but according to Keawe, they meld well.
“When you come right down to it, it’s all just music,” said Keawe, “ and musicians appreciate each other. There’s mutual respect.”
The creative mind behind the Big Island Jazz and Blues Festival is founder Ken Martinez Burgmaier, a producer and director from Maui. Burgmaier is best known for his film festivals in Hawaii, bringing indie films to rural Molokai, Hana, and Lahaina, Maui.
Twenty years ago, Burgmaier created the award-winning television series “Jazz Alley TV” and still hosts the show, now seen in more than 80 countries around the world. His love for jazz led him to produce the first ever Maui Jazz and Blues Festival in September last year.
“It was a huge success,” he said about the event.
“Replicating that success on another island will provide more people the opportunity to hear world-class jazz and blues, he said. “It’s really exciting – people are becoming aware of what we are building here in Hawaii with jazz and blues.”
The festival kicks off with an evening performance at the Blue Dragon on May 31 and continues with dinner shows on Friday and Saturday, a Sunday brunch and golfing with the musicians through June 3 at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Grammy-award winning musicians and jazz legends will perform, including: Les McCann, Joe Louis Walker, Skip Martin, Eric Marienthal, Javon Jackson, and drummer Akira Tana. Brother Noland will perform Hawaiian-style blues with his band and local jazz trumpeter Jr. Volcano Choy will play as well.
The intimate scale of the festival allows jazz lovers the opportunity to meet the musicians, Burgmaier said.
“You can even play a round of golf with them if you want,” he said, referring to the festival golf tournament on Sunday afternoon.
Tickets for the Big Island Jazz and Blues Festival are available at the door, or by calling the numbers below. For more information, visit bigislandjazzandbluesfestival.com.
The Jazz and Blues Festival Dinner Event is from 6 to 9 p.m. on May 31 at the Blue Dragon Restaurant. For information and reservations, call 882-7771. The VIP Jazz and Blues Luau Dinner at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is from 6 to 9 p.m. on June 1. Limited seating is available. The Big Island Jazz and Blues Festival featured event is from 4 to 9 p.m. on June 2. Tickets for Friday and Saturday night performances are $10 off if purchased before May 27.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and the Jazz and Blues Sunday Brunch is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on June 3 at The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Manta Restaurant. For reservations or more information, call 882-7222. Also, the Nine-Hole Jazz and Blues Golf Tournament at the Mauna Kea Golf Course begins at 1 p.m. For more information, call 882-5400 or go to: www.maunakeagolf.com