Jazz trio energizes Kona club crowd
Last Saturday, Grammy Award-winning keyboardist Gregg Karukas stepped out of his smooth jazz comfort zone for an evening of heart-pumping jazz-funk fusion with a splash of playful Bossa nova at Gertrude’s.
In a career spanning three decades, Karukas has racked up a long list of accomplishments in the music industry, including 12 solo albums and multiple #1 radio hits. He was also an original member of The Rippingtons, a popular contemporary jazz ensemble.
Accompanying Karukas at his two-show gig in Kona was gifted guitarist Michael O’Neill. He spent 40 years touring with George Benson’s band and producing songs for a range of performers. On drums was Russ McKinnon, who toured with Tower of Power, Barry Manilow, and Joe Cocker. McKinnon taught percussion at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu and lives part-time on the Big Island.
Karukas’ jazz trio opened with Jimmy Smith’s classic “Back at the Chicken Shack” and set the upbeat tone for the rest of the evening. About midway through the set, inhibitions evaporated, the dance floor was packed, and the GK Soul/Jazz Party was in full swing.
Karukas played an Italian-made Viscount Legend organ that he borrowed from local keyboardist Jocelyn Michelle. You may recall her performing with a Pink Floyd tribute that toured the island, or in Shakastock, a local Woodstock tribute . Karukas had Michelle sit in with the band on an enticing version of “O Barquinho,” a Bosa nova song from 1961.
“After doing my original music for so long, tonight’s show is a new project and a new challenge,” Karukas told the audience. Karukas is best known as a multi-keyboard player – piano, electric piano, and synthesizers. Three years ago, he took up the challenge to get a classic jazz organ trio started and handle all the bass lines as well.
Karukus’s 90-minute set paid tribute to some of the great organists of the past century, like Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Jordan, founder of the 70s funk band War.
On “The World Is a Ghetto,” Karukas turned the reins over to guitarist Michael O’Neill. O’Neill let his George Benson roots show by scatting along to improvised riffs. The ten-minute jam also let drummer Russ McKinnon do his thang. McKinnon was always in the pocket with crisp cymbal grooves during the quiet moments, that subsequently rose to a crescendo.
The only non-instrumental song in the performance was O’Neill’s rendition of Otis Redding’s R&B classic “Dock of the Bay.”
For the final number, Karukas invited three local horn players to join him on “Moanin’,” a tune made famous by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. The horn section featured trumpeter Ann Hoku Lyn and two tenor sax players, Reggie Griffin and Bill Noble. Griffin is also a multi-instrumentalist and a Grammy-nominated producer. He’s toured extensively with the Isley Brothers and Babyface. Griffin resided in Paauilo for 18 years before returning to the mainland for the last three.
This was Karukas’ first return to the Big Island since performing at the annual Dolphin Days All-Star Concerts at the Waikoloa Hilton. His latest release Serenata is his first Brazilian jazz album and very first solo piano album.
Notes & Links
Back at the Chicken Shack | Summertime | Summer Samba | Loose Foot | My Little Boat (O Barquinho) | Comin’ Home, Baby | The World Is a Ghetto | (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay | Moanin’ |
Concert date: 27/NOV/2021
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, bestselling author, and editor of Big Island Music.
Photos: Steve Roby