Friday, April 23, 2004

A proud Noel Okimoto with his recent batch of awards.

Okimoto’s on a roll

The year is only four months old, but it's been a great one so far for Noel Okimoto.

He was voted Studio Musician of the Year at the Hawaii Music Awards three weeks ago; his first solo album, "'Ohana," was voted Jazz Album of the Year; and he received the Mayor's Performing Arts Award from the Office of Culture & the Arts.

Noel Okimoto and 'Ohana

Where: Mamiya Theatre, St. Louis School, 3342 Waialae Ave.

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $30 pre-sale, $35 at the door

Call: 734-4304

On top of that, Okimoto learned Tuesday that his album made the final ballot for the 27th Annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. But the Hokus are a month away, and, at the moment, he's anticipating his concert this Sunday with special guests Makoto Ozone and Tiger Okoshi at Mamiya Theatre.

"I've been playing the music (from the album) live with some local guys, and it's been fun -- and really, that's what it's all about, even if the performance isn't perfect. Recording is documentation and the way to leave something in the way of a legacy, but playing live is really what it's all about. That's why I am so looking forward to this concert," Okimoto says.

He, Ozone and Okoshi will be joined by several other musicians in concert in playing songs from "'Ohana."

While Okimoto has been known for years as a world-class drummer, he's also an accomplished vibraphonist, and both skills will be showcased at Sunday's concert.

"(The vibraphone) is a great instrument. It really has a great sound, and it's pretty versatile, once you think about it," he says.

"There aren't a lot of great players, but the list is pretty diverse, from Cal Tjader to Tito Puente to Milt Jackson and some even modern guys who kind of brought some funk and R&B things to it. Francis Ho'okano is kind of like the father of jazz vibes playing here in the islands, but when the scene changed and the instrument wasn't heard for a while, people forgot about it. I heard him recently at Studio 6, and he's still a great player."

He credits local jazz pianist Rich Crandall with encouraging him to bring the instrument "out of the closet," so to speak, and play with him. Kit Ebersbach, his fellow musician in Don Tiki, also helped introduce it to a new generation of music fans.

For years, he says, there didn't seem to be any work here for vibes players.

"I started playing it in intermediate school ... and was really into playing mallet percussion and keyboard percussion when getting my percussion degree (in college), but after I graduated and got out into the real world, basically for practical reasons, being a drummer was how I made my living.

"Kit Ebersbach and the whole Don Tiki thing is perfect for me because it reaches another group of people who love the sound. I guess I got more serious about the instrument in the last 10 years and started playing it more publicly, and people liked it. Now it's kind of almost equal with the drums."

Noel Okimoto in a familiar pose behind the drum kit.

VIBES FANS can also occasionally catch Okimoto playing as the leader of his own Latin-jazz group.

"It's wonderful to have the two different worlds. They're both percussion instruments, but one is melodic and harmonic and the drums are rhythmic."

Okimoto is also one of the few local musicians who hasn't had to make ends meet by taking a day job outside of music. His regular job is playing in the Royal Hawaiian Band.

He describes it as "a perfect scenario for a musician in Hawaii."

"It gives me the opportunity to do creative stuff as fun stuff and not have to take every commercial gig that comes along just to make a living. We work five days a week, sometimes six, a concert usually every day, sometimes three jobs in a day. It keeps me pretty busy, and the band gives me this ability to really kind of pick and choose what I do on the side -- a lot of recordings, especially this year. It's kind of banner year for that."

One of those recording projects involved working with both Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta and also for son Herb Ohta Jr. (Okimoto's father himself worked with Ohta-san many years ago.) Other projects included work with Brother Noland, Jake Shimabukuro and Owana Salazar.

"Just a ton of stuff. It's a great year for that," he adds, mentioning that another recent "fun" gig for him was sitting in with Sonya Mendez, Michael Paulo and the Honolulu Symphony Pops as the opening act for David Benoit.

Another one of his friends, former isle resident Dean Taba, played bass with Benoit, and will be playing with Okimoto on Sunday.

"He played bass on my CD, so he was here with David, went back to Los Angeles and just got back (Sunday). So we've been doing some things (this week) leading to the concert."

Just a perfect scenario for a musician in Hawaii.

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