Henry Kapono’s “A Tribute to Jimmy Borges,” staged last night (May 27) at Blue Note Hawaii at the Outrigger Waikiki resort, had a tentative start but a celebratory finish.
The concert capped a weeks-long series of Kapono-led presentations, enabling island musicians a venue for gainful employment and exposure, and audiences to get a notch closer to a restored life of club-hopping normalcy.
In brief, it was a triumph, though Kapono initially seemed uncomfortable crossing from his pop-contemporary world into the jazz hemisphere of the late and great Borges. He dipped his metaphoric toes into the waters, by asking John Koliva, leader of the Honolulu Jazz Quartet who has had a couple of decades of gigs supporting Borges, the obvious question, “What is jazz?”
Kolivas, whose life has always been all about the bass (fiddle), wisely responded, “Jazz is a conversation…and improvisation.”
And therein was the model for the evening.
Kapono shared conversations about Borges – “when he sang it, he owned it…a true artist,” he said of the honoree.
Then despite a repertoire largely new to him, Kapono worked the improvisation mode frequently. Since jazz, by rule, enables individual musicians to indulge in brief and relevant interludes of solo instrumentation during a vocal, each song choice embraced the conversational and the improvisational elements. The HJQ, comprised of bassist Kolivas, saxophonist Tim Tsukiyama, keyboardist Dan Del Negro and drummer Noel Okimoto, was the logical “house band” for the tribute. The accompaniment was superb, helping define the jazz spirit befitting Borges.
With a few exceptions, Kapono’s song choices to salute Borges were familiar melodies that most would recognize, refashioned for variety. On “Night and Day,” there was a bossa nova tempo; on “Can’t Take That Away From Me,” a sorta honky tonk veneer; on a two-tune medley of “Sunny” and “Fever,” a generous finger-snapping blues motif; on “When Sunny Gets Blue,” a Kapono-on-guitar-only elocution inspired by a YouTube clip featuring Borges, projecting both sadness and gladness.
When Kapono introduced “Fly Me to the Moon,” he said of Borges: “He owns this one like he wrote it.” It was composed by Bart Howard and recorded and popularized by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, legendary icons admired by Borges throughout his life. Lest it be forgotten, Borges was given permission to utilize Sinatra arrangements for concerts here and Bennett has dubbed JB as one of the greatest singers ever.
A poster photo of a smiling Borges, draped with a maile lei, was a constant reminder of his cheer and grace, though its presence was not mentioned. But his impact lingered.
There were anecdotal recollections of Borges’ links to New York/Broadway and Kui Lee — generating tunes such as “On Broadway” and “Ain’t No Big Thing,” an anthem to the Great White Way and a Lee composition, respectively — that were marginal at best. And while Kapono included a couple of titles from his Cecilio and Kapono catalogue, this was not a C&K retrospection whatsoever. His fans won’t let him leave a stage without a signature or two or three.
As the show neared completion, the nostalgia factor increased, with Kapono offering “Goodtimes Together” to punctuate the happy memories shared, a guitar-backed “Over the Rainbow” and the wholly proper “My Way,” a favored show biz anthem. One puzzlement: if this was a tribute, wouldn’t it have been kosher to have one of Borges’ certified partners in song to sit in and share first-hand memories?