By Wayne Harada
Melveen Leed often has proclaimed that jazz has been a passion in her career.
Last Monday night (March 21), she demonstrated this passion with a powerful first-time showing at the Blue Note Hawaii club at the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel.
For someone who has been teetering over the decades, between a Hawaiian Tita and a Local Diva, Leed finally proved she also can be a chanteuse, given the opportunity. Surely, her first Blue Note appearance won’t be her last.
With an all-star combo of four backing her up, Leed put all doubts aside that she is, when she wants to be, a a jazz singer. And lord, she really wanted this one.
While she had teetered from a Hawaii soulstress to a patron of paniolo country over the decades, the jazz thing had been overshadowed by what otherwise perhaps came too easily. Sure, her fans love her comedics, her tita-isms that suited her impromptu performances that often lacked discipline, but jazz requires focus and form and and dedication and delivery.
She scored on all fronts. She was red hot, with all her vocal cylinders shining and chiming. She was confident; she had style; she delivered.
Dedicating her first of two sets to two ailing performers, jazz singer Jimmy Borges and Hawaiian icon Cyril Pahinui, Leed opened her gig with an easy-going “The More I See You.” Her excursion included some standards that were stamped with jazz phraseology and intonation, such as “One Note Samba,” “The Nearness of You,” “Just in Time,” even “My Funny Valentine.” In the jazz realm, delivery is the thing, with tempo and mood defining the genre. It's not what you sing, but how you sing it.
She was playful and interactive with her band, comprised of keyboarder Dan Del Negro, drummer Peter Factora, bassist Byron Yasui, and ukulele strummer Benny Chong; while piano and drums and stand-up bass are common jazz instruments, a jazz ukulele is surely rare, and Chong, the former member of The Aliis, Don Ho’s sidekicks, added a measure of unique plucking akin to a special language during the evening.
With her intense desire to please, Leed at one point sighed out loudly: “I never work this hard for a long time,” meaning that the commitment to sit in the jazz saddle was no easy trot. “But I love it.”
Much to the delight of her diehard fans, Leed did leave the jazz trail for a couple of her idiosyncratic hits, like “E Kuu Morning Dew,” which she delivered with fond and gentle departure of her familiar Hawaiian version, though she tossed in a one-hand-hula moment or two to indicate her roots.
There were two other Hawaiian gems: “O Kalena Kai,” which showed off her upper registers beautifully, and “Hi’ilawe,” the Gabby Pahinui signature, which she began while tickling the ivories (because Del Negro didn't know the song) then proceeded to render it with island-style respect and resourcefulness. You can get off the jazz trail, after all, and for a few brief moments, the Blue Note observed its first Aloha Monday (vs. Friday) celebration.
“I’ve always wanted to play the Blue Note in New York,” Leed said after her performance. Perhaps with this maiden voyage in Honolulu, she’ll get her ticket to the Big Apple in the months ahead. Or, if nothing else, a hana hou at the Hawaii destination.