At the beginning of June, Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu hosted an 80th birthday party to honor a “Living Legend of Hawaiian Music,” steel guitar master Henry Kaleialoha Allen, who has just released a new CD, and a new book, “Treasures of Hawaiian Music.”
The new recording, “Step Into My Life,” features three songs with jazz great George Benson, and backing by an ensemble of stellar musicians including Wayne Henderson of the Jazz Crusaders.
The project was a “once in a lifetime experience to get those kind of big names playing together for me,” says Allen. “It’s the best album I ever worked on, best players bar none.”
Only now available on CD, “Step Into My Life” was actually recorded in 1979.
Why did it take more than 30 years to come out?
We need to go back in time to Lahaina, when artists like Benson would often jam at clubs like the Blue Max.
While he’s often associated with the Hawaiian steel guitar, Allen is also a superb jazz guitarist. Producer/engineer Herb Ono, who had worked on albums by Keola and Kapono Beamer, Melveen Leed, the Makaha Sons and the Brothers Cazimero, was so impressed with his musicianship that in 1979, he flew Allen to L.A. to record a jazz album with some top players.
Allen’s melodic electric guitar artistry had also impressed Benson. After the Hawaiian guitarist helped Benson find a home in Kaanapali, the two musicians would often jam in Lahaina’s clubs.
“We became friends,” Allen notes. “We ended up recording together and he sat in on three songs. I asked George to write me two songs, and he wrote ‘I Don’t Mind,’ which he ended up singing on as he liked it so much.”
Best known as a co-founder of the Jazz Crusaders, trombonist Henderson, also recorded with many prominent artists including Ramsey Lewis, Steely Dan, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner.
“Wayne Henderson came, as he knew that George Benson wanted to be on this album with me,” Allen explains. “Wayne offered to come and produce the music.”
Also on board, keyboardist Bobby Lyle, whose credits range from Sly and the Family Stone and avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, to Bette Midler and Al Jarreau. Otherw include bassist Nate Phillips of the Jeff Lorber Fusion band; Percussionist Vance “Mad dog” Tenort, who has worked with Billy Cobham, Ronnie Laws and Hiroshima; late drummer Bruce Carter who toured with Kenny G; and Hilo-born trumpeter DeShannon Higa, whose credits include performing with the Royal Hawaiian Band, the Honolulu Symphony Pops and Raiatea Helm.
The recording went well and Allen was excited to get the new music out, but then tragedy struck.
“Henry and I were driving home to Napili and were in a terrible head-on car crash by a drunk driver,” explains Allen’s wife, Sherron Allen. “Henry was air evaced to Queen’s in Honolulu and they wanted to amputate both of his legs. He was crushed by the steering wheel all the way to the back of the car and in bad condition. He was on and off to Queen’s for two years. Henry lost three inches in height because of the loss of his legs being put back together.
“I was in Maui Memorial hospital for three months in a cast, glass in my face for two years coming out slowly from time to time. Ours was the case that changed the ‘Dram Shop law’ in Hawaii for an establishment serving liquor to a person and causing an accident, so all could go back and sue an establishment.”
This terrible accident halted plans to release the recording. And then a year later, Allen was mortified to discover the master tapes had become mildewed and could not be saved.
“Herb Ono’s son had given Henry a cassette of the final mix,” Sharron continues. “It was put into a drawer at our home and mislabeled. I only found the tape in 2004 and later took it to (Steely Dan engineer) Dave Russell in Paia, who was George Benson’s studio man (in Lahaina) and did several of Henry’s CDs back then. Dave restored the original tape.”
Recognized as a “Living Legend of Hawaiian Music,” Allen was born in Hilo in 1933 and moved to Maui in the early 1970s. Devoting more than half a century to pursuing a passion for jazz and Hawaiian music, his impressive resume includes performing on the world famous “Hawaii Calls” radio show, and playing with local greats such as Alfred Apaka and Ren Paulo during the early Hawaiian Territorial days.
As a student at McKinley High School, he had been drawn to jazz, and began playing jazz and Hawaiian swing in a quartet at Trader Vic’s in Waikiki.
Relocating to Los Angeles, he was hired as a singer by legendary band leader Martin Denny, known as the father of the exotica lounge movement. As a Hollywood studio musician, he played on TV shows including “Hawaiian Eye,” “Adventures in Paradise” and “Barnaby Jones.” In West Coast clubs, he jammed with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery and Gabe Baltazar.
“Step Into My Life” showcases Allen’s jazz guitar artistry. Ranging from romantic vocal songs to vibrant fusion instrumentals, it kicks off with a classic sounding Benson ballad “I Don’t Mind,” featuring the jazz legend on vocals and guitar. Both guitarists shine on the title track, while Allen’s improvisational skill is especially captured on “Day Dreams.” Probably the album’s most infectious track, “Avocado,” again spotlights the Maui guitarist’s ability to excel surrounded by world class musicians.
The two fusion tracks, “A’a Hot Lava” and “Moonride” are highlighted by local musician DeShannon Higa’s fiery trumpet playing, and the album closes with the tropical flavored Allen original “Noalani,” featuring Benson and his Maui friend trading guitar solos.
“I know that this is a one-of-a-kind album you won’t find in Hawaii of this caliber,” Henry concludes. “I want people to know what can come out of Hawaii, and what I have done with my life.”
Beginning on Monday this week, Jazz Maui 2013 has been featuring a series of student workshops and performances celebrating the American original art form. Presented by the Arts Education for Children Group, it runs through Sunday.
Today’s events include the free annual “Fourth of July Concert in the Park” on the Lahaina Library lawn, beginning at 4:30 p.m. with the UH-Maui Institute of Hawaiian Music students performing under the direction of George Kahumoku, Jr. The Maui Community Band led by Lisa Owen follows, playing a rousing program, including Sousa marches, Broadway tunes, musicals, a John Williams medley, and patriotic songs leading into the fireworks show.
On Friday, there is a free afternoon concert at Whalers Village from 2 to 4 p.m., featuring the UH-Maui Institute of Hawaiian Music students and cameo performances by the Louis Romanos Quartet and other Jazz Maui performers.
Pau Hana Jazz at Kahana Grill in the Kahana Gateway Center with Ellen Bellerose and Shiro Mori begins at 3:30 p.m. Friday. There is no cover charge.
Also on Friday, a party is being held at a private residence in Kaanapali to raise funds for Jazz Maui’s music education programs. This intimate evening features music by award-winning pianist Tommy James, music director of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and others, with food by Honu Seafood & Pizza, Kahana Grill, Lulu’s Lahaina, and Merrriman’s Kapalua.
On Saturday, another free jazz performance with special guest musicians takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. at Whalers Village.
Also on Saturday, from 5 to 10 p.m., Jazz Maui 2013 presents “For the Love of Maui,” a benefit for The Community Work Day at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua with an all-star lineup of visiting and local musicians featuring the Gene Argel Latin Band and horn players Jim Seeley and Peter Brainin.
The last concert of the series takes place on Sunday at the Whalers Village beginning at 6:30 p.m. This free “Sunset Jazz Concert” features the Mike Buono Trio and guests.
Jazz Maui 2013 events are free, except the benefit party in Kaanapali and benefit concert at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. The Kaanapali party is limited to 50 guests. Tickets are $100. Tickets for the Kapalua concert are $25. For reservations and tickets, visit www.jazzmaui.org.
HAPA returns to Stella Blues Cafe in Kihei for dinner shows on Friday and Saturday evening. Also on Saturday, following HAPA, the restaurants co-founder is remembered with the “4th Annual Celebration of Ray Ennis’s Life,” a free late night of music featuring Grateful Dead music by the Haiku Hillbillies and The Maui Pranksters. For more information, visit www.stellablues.com.