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Entertainment // Musical Notes
Bill Mossman

Love Of A Lifetime

Jazz great David Benoit is still flying high these days, three decades after he met a woman in Hawaii and fell in love

Gifted jazz pianist David Benoit has long had a love affair with the Hawaiian Islands, and there’s good reason why.

Nearly 30 years ago, before the five-time Grammy Awards nominee became a household name within the greater jazz community, he fell – both hard and for good – for a woman in this part of paradise. The year was 1983 and Benoit, a native of California, was high in the Hawaiian skies – on an interisland flight from Maui to the Big Island, touring as a sideman, when he struck up a conversation with a Japanese national named Kei Sasako.

“I was actually sitting next to her little cousin and Kei was thanking me for taking care of her cousin during the 20-minute-long flight,” Benoit recalls. “I eventually asked if she’d like to attend my show that night, but she wasn’t able to so she asked if I would join her for dinner afterward. I was like, ‘Sure. OK.’”

The food was good and the notes between them were even better. Soon afterward, the couple not only married, but Kei, because of her connections as a board member for the Asia America Symphony and Asia America Youth orchestras, helped her husband land the job as music director and conductor for those programs. Then two years later, Benoit released his breakthrough album, This Side Up, an effort that not only garnered significant radio airplay across the country (due in large part to the Charlie Brown tune, Linus and Lucy), but also helped launch the smooth jazz era (more on that later).

With a thriving professional career and a personal life that’s still flying high, things have been going quite well for Benoit. So when he tells me, “I really do think of Hawaii as the beginning for me,” I immediately understand why.

On Saturday at 8, Benoit continues his love affair with the Islands when he joins fellow musicians Michael Paulo, Richard Smith, Brian Bromberg and Michael White on stage at Hawaii Convention Center-Liliu Theater for an evening of great jazz. And while Benoit promises a few surprises – “I plan on debuting one or two songs from my next CD,” he says – don’t be surprised if this accomplished composer and producer of many pop and jazz artists decides to pay tribute to his wife through song and through the retelling of their initial encounter.

“Unfortunately, Kei wasn’t able to make the trip to Hawaii this time. So maybe I’ll throw Kei’s Song in as a solo piano piece,” says Benoit of his original composition that was first released in 1985, but has since been redone for his forthcoming album, Conversation, due out May 29. “It certainly would be fun. I haven’t played that song in the Islands in quite a while, and there’s always a nice story behind it.”

Here’s what else Benoit told Musical Notes: MN: You helped launch the whole smooth jazz genre in the 1980s, but you don’t really like being defined by that category. Why?

DB: Because it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Basically, I see myself as a pianist, arranger, conductor and composer – without any genre labels. I’ve done it all, almost every possible type of music there is. So when people say I’m a smooth jazz musician, it only associates me with a certain sound. It’s true that my sound was instrumental in creating that format. But when I compare myself to the smooth jazz players of today, my jazz feels almost classical and my shows are more like an acoustic jazz concert.

MN: One of the songs that helped launch your career was your cover of Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, which appeared on your 1985 album, This Side Up. How much of an influence did Guaraldi have on you?

DB: Oh, he was big for me. All the way back to childhood when I first saw the Charlie Brown specials, I loved his music and I would try to be Vince. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him, but fortunately, the producers of the Charlie Brown show heard my music and liked it enough to think I could help bring back that jazz-piano sound. So in 2000, I became the official composer of the Charlie Brown TV series.

MN: What can fans expect from your CD, Conversation? DB: Well, I have a lot of fun with the song Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which interestingly enough has kind of a Charlie Brown feel to it. And then there’s the title track, which is quite intriguing because there’s a whole classical piano trio versus a jazz piano trio feel to it. It’s also the first time I’ve not played all the piano parts on a song. One of my good friends, pianist Robert Theis, plays the classical portions on it. I’m hoping fans enjoy this piece because it’s something different from what I normally do.

small-kine notes:

Several years ago when Richard Barber went looking for a band name that was unique, masculine sounding and multisyllabic, it finally dawned on him that he really didn’t have to travel too far for the right moniker. There in his then emirate home in Dubai, under his very nose, grew the sources for such a name: two palm plants he named Borris and Ivy. “I was talking to my wife one day and I sort of said it in a moment of exasperation, ‘Let’s just call the band ‘Borris and Ivy,’” recalls the Australian-born Barber. “And then I thought, ‘Well, that actually rolled off my tongue quite nicely. I like it!’” He later substituted “and” for “-on” and – voila! – a new band, Borrison Ivy, was born – half a world away. These days, the hard-rocking outfit – made up of Barber on guitars and veteran local musicians Kipp McLeod on bass guitar and vocals, and Ed Silva on drums – calls Hawaii home. It released Just Another Office Job, the band’s debut album, last November and continues to play gigs all over town, including an 11 p.m. Saturday date at Rock Bottom on Coyne Street. Borrison Ivy also has upcoming performances at Kailua Town Pub (June 8) and Chez Sports Bar in Aiea (June 9). “We only look to gig about once a month,” says Barber, who’s currently working on the group’s follow-up album, tentatively scheduled for release in December. “We’re not trying to be the next major rock band around Oahu.” As for the current whereabouts of plants Borris and Ivy, well, they’ve since gone on to Compost Heaven. But don’t expect the axe-shredding Barber to shed a tear over their demise. “You could say the plants live on through the band’s name,” he says with a chuckle … Finally, there’s still time to enter Sing 2012, the keiki vocal competition held each summer at Kahala Mall. All interested vocalists between the ages of 9 and 18 are invited to submit a bio and minute-long YouTube clip of their singing abilities to kmsingcompetition@gmail.com by May 29. Contestants selected for the semifinals will take center stage July 25-26, and 12 finalists will be chosen to compete Aug. 11. As part of their prizes, winners receive a custom KoAloha ukulele. Last year’s top three winners were Ari Dalbert, Ciana Pelekai and Arianna Yago. For more details, visit kahalamallcenter.com.

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