To describe Kona-based musician L.T. Smooth as "talented" would be an understatement.
A kind of one-man band, he played most of the instruments (including violin and horns) on his latest Na Hoku Hanohano-nominated album, entitled, "My Journey."
An exceptional guitarist, he's accomplished across a wide spectrum from jazz and blues to flamenco and Hawaiian slack key. He can craft instantly memorable songs and convey them in an expressive, breezy style that recalls artists like Michael Franks.
Maui audiences love the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Ki Ho‘alu Guitar Festival, featuring legendary performers such as Brother Noland (left) and Dennis Kamakahi, right.
And when he covers a classic such as Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or "Amazing Grace," he adds something uniquely his own.
One of the many artists who will play at the 21st annual Ki Ho'alu Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Sunday, L.T. explains he's "Trying to develop my own style around slack key, remembering the roots, while trying to stay out of the box and taking a risk."
"My Journey," which was nominated for Contemporary Album of the Year, features two striking slack key instrumentals, a beautiful version of the Irish classic "Danny Boy," and the original "Waterfalls."
"I also do 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' in slack key and it's so beautiful," he continues. "I want to do an instrumental album with the old classics like 'Georgia' and 'Summertime' and play them all slack key. So I'm working on that right now."
Born in New Zealand as Leon Toomata, he says music became a lifesaver, a vehicle for him to escape a harsh life. "I grew up with the gangs and the drug scene," he recalls. "I've gone from drugs to music, now I put all my energy into music.
"It was medicine after I did rehab. I started going to cafes watching jazz bands and I also played the church organ. No matter what I picked up, I tried to master it."
These days L.T. plays regularly at Huggo's on the ocean in Kona where he regales diners with songs from his latest work and his debut album "Freedom," which included covers of "Sweet Lady of Waiahole," U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine."
His ability to cover a wide stylistic range is reflected in the diversity of his original songs, ranging from some cool, George Benson-style guitar playing and vocalizing on ""What Am I Suppose To Do" to the refined groove of "Alii Blues" and the sublime "My Heart Longs to Feel," that feels just like a classic Irish ballad.
"Music is not about how much you play, it's about the quality and space, giving it air, letting it breathe," he says. "I play 'Danny Boy' very simple, subtle and very rich, it comes from the soul. When I take a song I make it my own."
With two excellent albums already out and inclusion on the Grammy-nominated compilation "Hawaiian Slack Key Kings Vol 2" (with a Spanish-flavored original instrumental), the future looks decidedly bright for LT Smooth.
"I just play from my soul and if I can even just touch one person, it doesn't matter how good I can play, it's about the message," he concludes.
" 'My Journey' album is about hope. If you feel sad, put that album on. My goal in writing now is to inspire people to never give up. If I can get through 10 years of gang banging and dealing drugs -my hands were made for fighting. I was fighting for so many years of my life. Now, my hands are for music and love."
The 21st annual Ki Ho'alu Slack Key Guitar Festival performers include George Kahumoku, Jr., Brother Noland, Dennis Kamakahi, Kawika Kahiapo, George Kuo, L.T. Smooth, Hi'ikua featuring Kamuela Kimokeo, Paul Togioka, Maunalua featuring Bobby Moderow, Ola Hou featuring Kevin and Ikaika Brown, Nathan Aweau, Walter Mix (Keale), and Stephen Inglis.
* The 21st annual Ki Ho'alu Slack Key Guitar Festival will be held at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Pavilion/Amphitheater from 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday. Gates open at 12:30 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public.
The 2012 Maui Invitational Music Festival will present a Jazz and Blues Fest at several venues in Kaanapali and Wailuku from today through Sunday, Guest artists participating include vocalist Sacha Boutros, saxophonist Rob Scheps and guitarist Colin John, along with popular local performers such as Henry Allen, SLAM!, Vince Esquire, and the Mana'o Radio Orchestra Blues Band.
Tonight at 5 p.m., blues musician Colin John will perform at the Royal Lahaina Resort. Based on the Big Island, John previously played lead guitar in the house band at B.B. King's Memphis club, backing visiting artists from Hank Ballard and James Cotton, to Pinetop Perkins and Clarence Gatemouth Brown.
Also tonight, The Shiro Mori Trio with special guest guitarist Henry Allen will perform at Whalers Village Fine Shops & Restaurant in Kaanapali from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free admission to both events.
The music continues on Friday from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Whalers Village with a free concert by The Shiro Mori Trio, Colin John, and the Gene Argel Quartet.
Vocalist Sacha Boutros and saxophonist Rob Scheps will headline a jazz and blues concert including Colin John, Vince Esquire and the Mana'o Radio Orchestra Blues Band at the Iao Theater on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 per person.
Multilingual singer Sacha Boutros has performed with and opened for such artists as Julio Iglesias, Marvin Hamlisch, Patti Austin, and James Moody. Her debut album "Speak Low" ranged from jazz and bossa nova, to swing and pop, sung in Spanish, English, French, Italian and Portuguese. Her most recent album, "Sacha, Live in Hawaii," was recorded at Hawaii Public Radio's Atherton Studio.
"Jazz singer Sacha Boutros speaks five languages, has the range of an operatic singer and is compared to many jazz greats of yester year," noted the San Diego City Beat. Accomplished on saxophone, flute and clarinet, Rob Scheps has performed and recorded with many leading artists including Gil Evans, Dianne Reeves, Arturo Sandoval, Buddy Rich and John Abercrombie. His Down Beat (jazz) Magazine Awards include Best Chamber Music Performance, Soprano Sax Solo in 1985 and Outstanding Performance, Tenor Sax Solo in 1987.
Originally from Oregon, he studied at the New England Conservatory and moved to New York in 1988 where he formed the Rob Scheps Core-tet and Bartokking Heads and established himself as a formidable force on the jazz scene.
Also on Saturday night, jazz continues later with SLAM! featuring David Choy and Kelly Covington at the Jazz Club Maui at the Royal Lahaina from 9 p.m. to midnight. Admission is $15.
The fest closes at 6 p.m. on Sunday in Son'z at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa with a free performance by Tropical Swing with a Touch of Cool Jazz featuring the Henry Allen Quartet.
The Maui Invitational Music Festival is presented annually by Arts Education for Children Group (AECG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for artistic and cultural enrichment.
The Festival takes place throughout the year and includes a wide variety of concerts, classes and workshops for music lovers of all ages.
Ebb & Flow Arts will present an adventurous evening of improvisational piano music by Lee Pui Ming at the Keawala'i Congregational Church in Makena at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. There is no charge and you get complimentary desserts during the intermission. A $10 chicken dinner also precedes the concert.
This Hong Kong-born artist draws from Chinese traditional and pop music, European classical music and jazz. In her dynamic live performances Lee frequently incorporates her voice and extended piano techniques (using the body and strings).
Besides her concert, Lee will present a free improvisation workshop at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the Maui Music Conservatory at the Queen Ka'ahumanu Shopping Center in Kahului.