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Joel Katz and the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
September 15, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
I first met Joel Katz at a reception at a Wailea hotel about a year ago. He caught my attention as a contemporary individual incongruously playing a steel guitar, what I would consider an “old” instrument, a dinosaur from the 1950s, more from the period of the slow black-and-white T.H. (Territory of Hawaii), not the fast-moving Kodachrome color State years. His tunes rose above the chatter and noise of parties – floating, hovering, and full of emotions.
I then met Joel over the last year, at various functions, and discovered that he had been performing professionally on Maui for 25 years on both piano and guitar. He is also teaches at a local college and heads the Seaside Recording Studio.
Joel just released a CD entitled “Hawaiian Steel Guitar: Hawaiian to Jazz by Joel Katz”. What he has done is to bring his love for the steel guitar out to a larger audience. The song selection all feature the unique steel guitar, with tunes ranging from Hawaiian style steel guitar classics from the 1930s to jazz and pop tunes, and his technical mastery of the instrument, evolved in Hawai’i in the late 1800s, is readily apparent. (With one exception, Joel played all the music, including lap steel, nylon and steel acoustic guitar, resonator guitar, ukulele, basses, keyboards, and drum programming – all recorded and mixed at his Maui studio.)
Joel’s Hawaiian classics include “Ke Kali Nei Au” or more familiarly known as “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” (perhaps historically the most iconic “Hawaiian” song, next to “Tiny Bubbles”), “E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei”, “Blue Hawai’i”, “Akaka Falls” to “My Yellow Ginger Lei”. Interestingly, listening to these “classics” immediately conjures a sense of what the American populace would associate with a dreamy tropical paradise, through the radio show “Hawai’i Calls” in the 1940s into the 1950s, ending just around Statehood in 1959.
In the CD jacket, Joel writes:
I was drawn to the steel guitar by its versatility in articulation, pitch, and tonal color – second only to the human voice. Hawaiian-style steel guitar makes use of the instrument’s full, expressive range. The picking touch on the strings affects the tone and harmonics, while the motion of the metal bar mimics a singer’s vibrato and the subtle pitch fluctuations of everyday speech. No other instrument can do this with whole chords.
Joel commented in his blog that his favorite of the new CD’s Hawaiian songs is “Akaka Falls”. The song is romantic, sentimental, slow, evocative, mood-creating, and perfect for dancing at a restaurant by the beach under a full moon. Joel points out that the tone of the dobro/resonator guitar on “My Yellow Ginger Lei” is “very nice” – the combination -- to my ears -- is smooth, expressive, ultimately calming.
In the CD collection, Joel wrote in his blog that his favorite song overall is the opening one, “Harlem Nocturne”. He believes “(the song) was originally recorded as a saxophone solo by the group Viscounts in 1960 and continues: “It starts with the eerie major/minor chord. I recorded it direct through an old tube preamp and I love the tone of the steel. The dynamics and subtleties of the instrument are all there without being squashed by compression.”
I have listened to “Harlem Nocturne” now countless times on my way from Kihei to Kahului, as an alternative to my 'olelo Hawai'i self-learning CDs, and I totally agree: the deeply evocative song is addictive, compelling, mysterious, like a soundtrack to a 1940s “film noir” detective movie, and I imagine urban scenes, rainy streets, slow-moving crowds, neon signs, reflections off storefront windows -- and feel an outpouring of emotions -- regret, sadness, hope, longing, memories -- the tune transforms the “old” Hawaiian steel guitar into a contemporary sound, an instrument not of the past, but our times.
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