After a two-year pandemic pause, the Big Island Jazz & Blues Fest returned for its ninth year. Credit goes to Maui-based promoter Ken Martinez Burgmaier for hanging in there and enduring numerous cancelations to finally make it happen. Last Saturday marked the 66th festival that Burgmaier has produced in Hawai’i during the previous 25 years.
This year’s three-day festival started with food-oriented events featuring top chefs at the Redwater Cafe in Waimea and the Copper Bar at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Both were opportunities to get a sneak preview of the main event and do a meet-and-greet with several musicians on the bill.
The audience at these annual shows has members from local businesses like BMW of Hawai’i, Coldwell Banker, and various tour companies. Ticket prices ranged from $225 to a VIP table for 10 for $2500. Although the general area is cramped with small tables and chairs packed closely together, some folks found opportunities to dance along the sides of the festival grounds.
As concertgoers entered for Saturday’s four-hour concert, they were welcomed with a short set by Hilo-born guitarist and Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner Benny Uyetake. He now resides on Maui, where he teaches music at Kalama Intermediate Public School in Makawao. His set highlight was a blazing cover of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.”
Next up were Na Hoku Winner Sarah Bethany and Haitian singer Natalie Guilaume. They did beautiful duets on “Black Gold” and a Chick Correa tune called “500 Miles High.” Bethany will have new material out this summer and a full album to follow next year.
Acclaimed guitarist and singer John Keawe followed with a set of “slaz,” or slack-key jazz. Keawe demonstrated his unique style of playing on “Punahele” (a song by Raymond Kāne) and a tune he wrote during the pandemic called “Hawai’i.” Keawe is a Grammy-winner and scored a Hoku Award for his Slack Key Album of the Year, Hawai’i Island Is My Home.
As a young musician, sax player Eric Marienthal started his professional career with famed New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt. Since then, the Grammy Award winner has played with various musicians, including Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder, and performed with the Chick Corea Band for 35 years. During his set, Marienthal played Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and a new one titled “You Gotta Get It.”
Tenor saxman Javon Jackson brought the heat with crowd favorites like “My One and Only Love” and “Watch What Happens.” Jackson came into international prominence touring and recording with the legendary drummer Art Blakey as a member of his band, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Tonight, Jackson was backed up by the Jazz Alley Trio and Benny Uyetake.
Donald Harrison Jr., “The King of Nouveau Swing,” was recently inducted into the National Endowment of the Arts. The alto saxman became the Big Chief of The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans cultural group in 1999 and coined the term Afro-New Orleans to describe his culture. He also combined jazz with Afro-New Orleans traditional music at Saturday’s concert and the crowd loved every minute.
Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Sennie “Skip” Martin followed with probably the most danceable set of tunes. Martin is best known for his tenure as a lead singer and trumpeter for two legendary R&B groups, Kool & the Gang and The Dazz Band. He played muted trumpet on top of pre-recorded tracks and had the Jazz Alley Trio join him on classics like “Celebration” and “Get Down On It.”
High-energy showman Wayne Toups sat in with The Iguanas as he’s done in previous years. The multi-award-winning accordion player revved up the excitement with his “zydecajun” playing style, and slowed things down with a soulful version of “Tupelo Honey.”
With the schedule running late, harmonicist Dale Spalding did an abbreviated set with The Iguanas but managed to work in some Canned Heat hits like “On The Road Again” and “Goin’ Up The Country.” Spalding played with a later incarnation of Canned Heat and Latin percussionist Poncho Sanchez.
The evening ended with a Hana Hou jam which gave all the performers a chance to step into the spotlight and take solos.
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby