It was a busy week for the East Hawaii Jazz & Blues Festival – between the UH Hilo Jazz Orchestra workshop, a charter school appearance, and various live performances around Hilo (15 total), the major finale happened at Friday’s Black & White Night After Party concert at the Hilo Palace Theatre. The two-hour-plus show featured a bevy of Big Island players as well as top-flight talent from Oahu and the mainland.
This year marked the seventh year for the festival. It started in 2010 with a simple Sunday gathering featuring wine, appetizers, and live music at the former Nihon Restaurant in Hilo. Today it’s evolved into the largest ongoing Jazz & Blues Festival in Hawaii thanks in part to festival organizer Steve Bader.
The music festival is a fundraiser for the nonprofit Hawaii Island Veterans Memorial Inc., which is currently focused on the construction of a 90-unit veterans housing complex near the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Bob Williams, chair emeritus of the Veteran’s Memorial, said construction should begin in late 2020. The project is designed to meet the needs of veterans and their spouses at a one-stop location that will include 75 affordable rental units with a combined Veterans’ Center (CVC) and medical outpatient clinic (CBOC).
Friday’s After Party concert was held on Black & White Night, an annual gigantic multi-block party that stretches across Downtown Hilo. The event featured food trucks, packed sidewalks, and live music played practically on every street corner.
The Palace concert opened with Deems Tsutakawa, a Seattle-based jazz pianist and 2018 nominee for the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Jazz Album in 2018. This year marked his seventh straight appearance at the festival, and he was joined by San Diego flutist Bradley Leighton, Steve Bader (drums), and Owen Mastui (bass).
Over the course of the evening, concertgoers were treated to short rotating sets that featured numerous musicians who performed throughout the week. New York saxophonist Rob Scheps led the second set and was accompanied by Ethan Capone (keyboards), Matt Spencer (bass), and Abe Lagrimas, Jr.(drums). Their two-song set featured lively covers by Ken Wheeler and Herbie Hancock. Dancers filled the open space in front of the stage and stayed until the concert was over.
Jazz vocalist Allison Adams Tucker followed Scheps with a set of Latin flavored music. Tucker sings in six different languages and did a marvelous rendition of “Mas Que Nada” a hit made popular by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. She closed with a cover of Carol King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Elena Welch, a former Big Island vocalist with a blues and swing repertoire, was up next. Welch opened with B.B. King’s 12-bar blues song “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” She was joined by Jeannie Guillory-Kane, a popular Big Island vocalist who appears at venues like Gertrude’s Jazz Club, and has been featured as one of the “Divas of Jazz” at the Volcano Arts Center. Kane covered Etta James’ classic “At Last,” and then did a duet with Welch on “Route 66” and “Bye-Bye Black Bird.” Also featured were guitarists Doug MacDonald and Big Island’s Larry Dupio, a Vietnam veteran who won a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Rock Album in 2018.
After a 15-minute intermission, Matt Spencer’s band Isla Tumbao performed a set of salsa themed music that got the audience back on the dance floor. The Big Island group features Sarah Bethany (keyboards/vocals), and Michael Surprenant (drums), Larry Beck (percussion) and Michaeloha Elam (trumpet).
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby