COURTESY MOUNTAIN APPLE CO.
Recordings of the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole have been set to symphonic arrangements in "Wonderful World," adding new perspective to the legacy of the revered singer and musician.
Orchestral arrangements add fresh musical depth to the late singer's standards
It's great to have something new by IZ! "Wonderful World" will be available to the public tomorrow, and as with its Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning predecessor, "Alone in IZ World," of 2002, producer Jon de Mello has done a masterful job at presenting archival recordings in a fresh and imaginative context. This time, the "world" is a beautifully crafted "what if" exercise that shows how wonderful it would have been if Kamakawiwo'ole had decided to perform with a full symphony behind him.
Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole
In stores tomorrow
$16.99 (Big Boy)
With exquisite orchestral arrangements placed in perfect counterpoint to Kamakawiwo'ole's voice and ukulele, "Wonderful World" is an album in which each selection seems more beautiful than the others. The orchestra expands the familiar melodies and offers fresh perspectives that allow the imagination to explore the lyric images in new ways, but Kamakawiwo'ole is never overshadowed or lost in the mix. This is one of those rare times in local music in which "more" -- more instruments in this case -- actually turns out to be a good thing.
The great irony is that the most impressive thing about the album is the technology de Mello used to create it. The "science" will go unnoticed (as it should), while the public embraces de Mello's gorgeous new versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," "White Sandy Beach," and an assortment of island standards -- with "E Ku'u Morning Dew" and "'Opae E" as two of the stand outs.
As was Kamakawiwo'ole's habit, the lyrics are sometimes scrambled in non-sensical or mildly risqué ways, most notably on "Henehene Kou 'Aka." There is also a brief narrative passage in "What a Wonderful World" where he ruminates on the importance of people keeping their kuleana (area of responsibility) pono (good or righteous).
Raconteur and philosopher though he was, Kamakawiwo'ole was not known as a songwriter. It is especially odd to find him credited as the composer of "Another Hawaiian Like Me" because the lyrics and the melody are almost identical to those of "You May Go," recorded by Don Ho and the Aliis in 1965. The sentiments are earnestly IZ but the thoughts as he expresses them here are not original.
Kamakawiwo'ole has been dead too long for "Wonderful World" to be eligible for a Grammy Award in 2008, but this beautiful album is an instant front-runner in the race to sweep next year's Hoku Awards.
Tech magic brings IZ to orchestras
"IZ! Coming Soon to a Concert Hall Near You!"
Jon de Mello, CEO of the Mountain Apple Co. and producer of all but one of Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole's solo albums, says the genesis of "Wonderful World" -- an album of archival recordings that presents the iconic Hawaiian artist in a new context -- was his plan for a touring show for use by symphony orchestras.
"A couple of years ago when I started listened to the library that Israel and I built up, I started thinking that if he was still alive he'd be approaching 50 years old, and he'd be approaching at least interest in (performing with a symphony). He and I used to kid around, 'What if we had the philharmonic behind us?' "
Soon, de Mello says, people around the world will be able to hear what that would have sounded like. "Four major symphonic orchestras," he says, have expressed interest in presenting Kamakawiwo'ole in concert.
"I had bigger plans for this than just a CD, in fact, the concert tour was going to be before the CD, and then suddenly I just twisted it around and decided that I had to make sure that the sound works."
"Wonderful World," Kamakawiwo'ole's second posthumous album, goes on sale in local record stores tomorrow, and the tour is scheduled to start some time next year. The public "buzz" by that time should be a "roar." A concert package in which the musicians who backed Elvis Presley in the early '70s provide live accompaniment to archival film footage of Elvis has been touring for years. Why something similar with IZ?
De Mello says that a primary concept throughout the development process was that the orchestral scores be done "Israel's way," and that the orchestral score never over-power Kamakawiwo'ole's voice or his ukulele.
He and his father, producer/ composer Jack de Mello, were the principal arrangers, sending scores to other arrangers in Japan, Europe and Los Angeles. "It was just a thrill to work with my dad. He's an encyclopedia."
Assembling the components required two years of almost nonstop work.
"One of the most difficult things was Israel never played to a click track, never to a metronome, so the first year I had to do what they call 'time base correction.' Dolby made this enormously powerful little box that's just out there -- a time shifter -- so I would go into a four-beat measure, and if one beat was a little late I could just move (that) one beat forward a little bit. ... We orchestrated 23 songs, and some of them had in the initial tracks -- the ukulele and the vocal -- almost 230 or 240 edits, but you can't hear them."
Some of the corrections are so minor, "just a micro-second," de Mello says, that even he couldn't hear the difference. The Dolby time shifter could.
"Four years ago, five years ago, (these corrections) couldn't have been done. Dolby hadn't invented this machine yet. Dolby was known for noise reduction in the '60s and '70s. ... They sic'ed their engineers on this time-stretching device that can stretch (sound) out without changing tone or pitch."
Jon de Mello made use of many technical tricks to create "Wonderful World," but his primary concern was that the orchestration never overpower Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's voice.
De Mello says that Kamakawiwo'ole had never been comfortable playing to a click track or metronome, but the concert tracks had to be set to a perfect beat.
"The conductor hears in his earpiece first of all a human count-off, a two-bar human count-off, then he hears the clicks with an emphasis on the downbeat ... and then Israel comes in with his vocal and his ukulele, and the conductor never gets lost. It's right on the manuscript, it's right there in front of him."
Despite the technical requirements on the production side, de Mello says the intent of the show is to capture the magic of Kamakawiwo'ole as he was.
This includes Kamakawiwo'ole spoken comments and laughter -- "I have 150 (laughs), from a belly laugh to a 'hee hee hee' and 'wheee-ha!' " De Mello says he can make it appear that Kamakawiwo'ole is communicating with the conductor.
"I have the technology to do it. I have a notebook on it. The voice bites that you would hear in the auditorium with Israel (talking) would be on a sampler on a keyboard ... and written into the score."
De Mello doesn't want the sound bites to become a gimmick, but he does want the audience to "feel Israel in the hall."
The challenge, given the technical issues regarding timing, was "to squeeze him into a metric form, without touching Israel in essence," de Mello says.
"I had 80 tracks to mix and with that many sounds you can bury the singer real easy, so the trick was to stay out of Israel's way. That was my biggest trick."
De Mello expects the new version of "Wonderful World" to become one of the most popular cuts "just because that's the song that people know -- his sound and his strumming, -- and they're used to that."
He also mentions "Kaleohano" ("which is a killer," he says) and "E Ku'u Morning Dew," which "has never been heard in its entirety ... it's a classic Hawaiian song, and needed more (work)."
You'd never know from the finished version on the album, but "E Ku'u Morning Dew" was recorded on an inexpensive microphone during a concert at Miloli'i. Not only did de Mello have to clean up all the usual crowd noise, but he had to cut and paste a word from the second verse into the first to eliminate a barking dog without damaging the tone of Kamakawiwo'ole's voice.
"I used every tool and every imaginative thing I could do, but I tried very hard to stay away from as much science as I could. Science is wonderful, but it can sterilize the music, and I didn't want to sterilize it. ... Israel needs to be more Israel than ever."