For his latest album, "Twisted Ukulele," Willie K did something rather unusual. He traveled to the German city of Berlin and recorded a bunch of tracks accompanied only by one of the project's producers, Hanan Rubinstein, who plays guitar with Alicia Keys.
The result is uniquely Willie, a kind of smorgasbord of his extraordinary talent stretched across genres from traditional Hawaiian to rock, pop and blues.
In 2009, the charismatic musician toured Germany as a solo artist opening for the UK pop/soul band Simply Red, to tremendous acclaim. Willie was such a hit that the tour's promoters suggested he record an album for the European market.
Maui News file photo
Maui keyboardist Mark Johnstone will perform at the second annual Big Island Jazz & Blues Festival from May 30 through June 2 at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Anick Violette photo
"They had never seen an opening act get two standing ovations at a stadium in Berlin," Willie explains. "One of the promoters hooked me up with people who had a recording studio. The idea was to focus on the ukulele creating a pop album out of Germany."
The project was supposed to be distributed by Universal Records in Europe, "but they didn't take it," he continues. "They were sitting on it and were trying to find a market for it and it was taking too long. I knew I could do something and sell it in Hawaii."
In the liner notes, Willie writes: " 'Twisted Ukulele' is probably the first project of its kind to ever hit the ear waves of the world. We introduce the variety of uses of the ukulele. Give it a chance and it can become the most powerful instrument in the world."
So with this concept in mind, Willie unleashed his formidable talent on an array of gems from U2's "With or Without You," Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately," and Hall and Oates' "Sarah Smile,'' to the standard "Fly Me to the Moon," and such Hawaiian classics as "Waimanalo Blues," Dennis Kamakahi's "Kokee" and "Hawaiian Cowboy," plus five new originals.
"I was working with a producer who chose everything," he notes. "He took the formula of what I wanted to hear with the ukulele and made it happen. Back in 2008 and 2009, everyone was striving for that 'Over the Rainbow' brass ring, when Brother Iz really peaked to the top. It's a shame they weren't able to promote it in Germany. I think it's one of the most beautiful projects I've ever done."
Usually recording his albums in Hawaii, Willie relished the opportunity to work with gifted producer/musicians in Berlin. While Willie sang and played ukulele and acoustic guitar, Rubinstein played all the other instruments.
"It was very professional," he reports. "They didn't automate anything on my vocals, they just made me do it like 80 to 100 times on a song and pick and choose which sounded great. They were really adamant about performance and getting the real feel of a song. I just played the ukulele and sang the songs. All the ear candy was just one guy, it was all Hanan. It was amazing. He was exactly what I've been looking for as a producer for the last 20 years, to bring it out of me. I don't (normally) sing like that or perform like that. He brought it out. And he's a great guitar player, a protege of George Benson."
And so we get to hear Willie morphing into Bono, sweetly singing and strumming ukulele on a brilliant, stripped down version of U2's majestic "With or Without You."
"That's my favorite song on the whole album," says Willie, rightfully proud.
Other standouts include a gorgeous "Sarah Smile,'' embellished with a subtle reggae twist, that could easily be a local radio hit. On Sol Bright's "Hawaiian Cowboy," Willie gets to showcase his tremendous yodeling skills, while Alvin Isaacs' "Koula" demonstrates his gift as a falsetto singer.
"All the pop songs were their idea, and, of course, I took care of all the Hawaiian songs," he says.
As for his originals, "Howling at the Moon," a highlight on his "Warehouse Blues" album, surfaces here in a more bare-bones version. And giving thanks to the German folks responsible for guiding the album he delivers a lovely homage, "Sunshine in Berlin."
"German people go, 'It will never happen,' " he says laughing about the title.
A couple of songs that didn't make the album include what he describes as, "a kind of jazz, hip hop" version of Van Morrison's "Moondance," and a "Chinese blues" version of Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," which might be included on a future work.
As for the future, Willie is looking forward to some exciting events, including overseeing a kind of battle of the bands program for, "reggae, rock, pop, DJ and country music. The final battle will be at Aloha Stadium or the Diamond Head Crater."
And the success of his blues fest at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea has led to invitations to perform at various blues events in Santa Cruz, Seattle, New Orleans, Australia and Canada.
* Willie K plays at Hard Rock Cafe in Lahaina at 7 p.m. Saturday (no cover). At 5 p.m. Tuesday, he will sing the national anthem for the Na Koa Ikaika Maui baseball team at Wailuku's Iron Maehara Stadium. On Wednesday, he plays a dinner show at Mulligans on the Blue. For reservations, call Mulligans at 874-1131.
After producing successful jazz and blues festivals on Maui, Kenneth Martinez Burgmaier is heading to Kona to present the second annual Big Island Jazz & Blues Festival from May 30 through June 2 at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Headliners include Delfeayo Marsalis, Chubby Carrier, Bobby Watson and Brint Anderson.
Marsalis is recognized as one of the top trombonists, composers and producers in jazz today. A brother of Branford and Wynton of the legendary Marsalis family, he was hailed by the San Francisco Examiner as, "one of the best, most imaginative and musical of the trombonists of his generation." His credits include formative years of touring with Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibrahim, Max Roach and Elvin Jones.
Zydeco accordion great Carrier hails from a revered Louisiana musical family. He began playing drums in his father's band at age 12. A former member of Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys, Carrier formed his own band in 1989. The Chicago Tribune hailed Carrier as, "one of the finer standard bearers of the classic Zydeco sound among the new generation of Louisiana bands." The Worcester Telegram and Gazette praised him for his, "unbridled enthusiasm and the ability to make a party happen whether he's playing for five people or 500."
A former musical director of Art Blakey's legendary Jazz Messengers, saxophonist Bobby Watson has worked with many lights of jazz, including drummers Max Roach and Louis Hayes, fellow saxophonists George Coleman and Branford Marsalis, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Watson also played with the Grammy-nominated Tailor Made big band and is a founding member of the acclaimed 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, an all-horn, four-piece group. He credits include composing original music for the soundtrack of Robert DeNiro's directorial debut, "A Bronx Tale."
New Orleans-based guitarist Anderson has backed legends such as Dr. John, Art Neville, John Lee Hooker and Albert King. His recordings include "Homage To Elmore," a tribute to Elmore James, and "I Knew This Would Happen." "Brint Anderson can't be too far behind Warren Haynes on the best slide guitarist list," noted a Telluride Daily review. "Slick lines and screaming high harmonics leap out at you in his solos and secretly layer textures just beneath the top of the New Orleans Funk."
Also on the festival bill, Paula Fuga, slack key guitarist John Keawe and Jr. Volcano Choy (nephew of Gabe Baltazar), along with Maui musicians keyboardist Mark Johnstone from the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band and guitarist Benny Uyetake, and the Jazz Alley TV Trio.
In September, the third annual Maui Jazz & Blues festival will return to the Grand Wailea Resort.
* The second annual Big Island Jazz & Blues Festival will be presented from May 30 to June 2 at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast. The festival on June 1 will be held at the resort's luau grounds. Cost is $60 per person; VIP front row tables are available. For tickets, visit www.bigislandjazzandbluesfestival.com.