story by Ric Valdez
photos by Brad Goda
It’s pushing 11 p.m. on a misty Tuesday night: Down on the street, buses come and go, tires hissing on the rain-washed asphalt. Meanwhile, up a steep, nearly hidden flight of stairs, the loft space is filling up. There’s art on the walls, a disco ball on the ceiling, couches and tables scattered here and there. Out on the rooftop lanai, a herd of smokers huddles under table-mounted umbrellas, while a mini-skirted waitress makes the rounds. Bartender’s got a Mohawk and there’s recorded bossa nova on the sound system.
I’m nursing a Guinness and musing on a larger-than-life painting of a koi fish when a squawking saxophone pulls me back. The New Jass Quartet is heading into its first set of the evening: A clean, stripped-down jazz-rock fusion—guitar, sax, bass, drums. A kid barges into the lounge in a blazer and high-water pants, shuffles and mimes on and around the couches, an updated scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.
The quartet is laying it down for the I-pod generation, many of whom probably don’t recognize the song’s roots—Miles Davis in his electric-funk era; a time when, some still claim, he wasn’t playing jazz at all. The music is breaking the scene down into essential, bit-by-bit moments: Off-the-hook … everybody looking everywhere … hugs and kisses … people coming in and going out and it’s the jazz—yes, this is jazz—that’s pulling all the strings.
It could be SoHo but it’s not: This is Chinatown, Honolulu, and 39 North Hotel Street is on fire.
I always knock before entering Shoji Ledward’s closet-sized practice studio, over at ABC Music in Kaka‘ako. Shoji’s big as a defensive lineman, and it’s only possible to see a slice of him when peering through the small viewing window in the door. This time, it appears that he’s napping: Head bent, eyes closed behind reading glasses, he sits virtually motionless in a fold-up chair, surrounded by CDs, charts, music books and a few guitars in gig bags.
But then the fluid notes, muffled through the soundproofed door, tell another story: Shoji is wide-awake and wailing away on his blue, custom-made seven-string axe, creating spontaneous, swinging, horn-like melodies over a tune I don’t recognize. His finger-style technique is an attack, roughly the equivalent of playing two guitars at once: Plucking with his right hand while the digits on his meaty left hand crawl over the fret board, pressing and pulling strings, creating a complex, three-part rhythmic counterpoint—melody line, accompaniment and bass.