There are times an album comes along which simply has to be played again and again. Ernie Cruz Jr.'s Portraits is one such album.
Each May, the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts votes for the Na Hoku Hanohano awards (Hawaii's equivalent to the Grammies.) Even bearing in mind the strong field of contenders this year, it came hardly a surprise that he picked up awards for Male Vocalist of the Year and for the best recording in the Island Contemporary category.
Ernie is best known for his work with the Ka'au Crater Boys, but proves here that he is able to stand alone with his singing, compositions and playing. Joined by a handful of musicians -- including Bobby Ingano (lap steel), Greg Sardinho (steel guitar), Barry Flanagan and Shawn Ishimoto (guitars) and singer Fiji -- he's created one of the most outstanding albums of the year in any genre.
The recording presents different aspects of Hawaiian music today. It opens with a bang as "Fires of Pele" rolls along, driven particularly by Cruz's chopping ukulele and the fluid guitar work of Ishimoto complementing his strong tenor vocals. Moving on to "Where Are the Brothers", he shows how reggae has developed in the Islands, taking on its own particular flavor -- the ukulele provides a perfect rhythm while 3 Plus create a dynamic atmosphere with their vocal accompaniment.
Cruz continues in his exploration of other facets of today's sounds with interpretations of everything from slack key to jazz to rock and more. He also covers a variety of subjects from social comment ("You took away our native tongue / You took away our land / Because we gave with heart and soul / And still you bit the hand ") to love songs, but throughout he maintains the feeling of Hawaii and the spirit of aloha.
Five of the tracks come from his own pen -- three songs and two instrumentals. "Ka Makani" is a gentle bilingual tribute to the wind. Cruz's warm voice has a caressing quality which parallels his own easy going guitar, ukulele, and bass accompaniment. Bobby Ingano adds a whistling lap steel. By contrast, "Hana Calls" has an infectious dancing rhythm: Cruz's jogging style and Ingano's steel punctuation create a more traditional sound with traces of slack key playing. Cruz's third song, "One Day Soon", a wistful love song, introduces traces of 1960s soul and an adapted samba rhythm.
The two instrumental tracks -- "Na Pali Slack" and "Mauna Loa Street Slack" -- show Cruz to be a fine guitarist with an excellent sense of melody. "Na Pali" moves along at a fast pace with Cruz weaving in and out of the melody creating a web of echoes and counterpoint on guitars and ukulele. The album winds down with "Mauna Loa Street"; as its final strummed harmonic chord fades, the tune lingers like the aftertaste of a fine wine. The recording ends, but the memory remains.
The liner notes are a little disappointing, in that they promise more than they deliver. The lyrics are there, along with a series of fun photos. But this is an album likely to sell well beyond the shores of Hawaii. (In fact, Cruz was part of a recent, extensive, successful West Coast tour along with such performers as Barry Flanagan and Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom, earlier this year). A little more information on Ernie would have been appreciated. But, the most important thing is the recording itself, and with that, he delivers.
Although moving from one style to another, Portraits has tremendous continuity. Cruz shows himself to be a strong, emotional singer who is also capable of writing (and choosing) good songs, as well as providing the perfect sympathetic accompaniment. His guitar playing is ever-present and steady and he is pretty good on ukulele and bass, too. His arrangements allow room for guest musicians to add color without taking away from his work. And his producing is clear and warm, creating a sense of intimacy, a feeling of being present as the music is made. It's no wonder Ernie Cruz Jr. has won the two prestigious Na Hoku Hanohano awards.