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Bill Tapia: Tropical Swing

Bill Tapia
Tropical Swing
Moon Room
2004-03-02

Honolulu native Bill Tapia was about 10 years old when he started playing ukulele in public at USO shows for World War 1 servicemen stationed on Oahu. Tapia is now celebrating nine decades as a professional musician with the release of his debut solo album.

By the time he was a teenager, he was already performing in vaudeville and on cruises. He worked on ships crossing the Pacific as a jazz guitarist until he eventually settled in California. The list of musicians he has worked with is a veritable Who’s Who of jazz and Hawaiian music: Sol Hoopii, King Bennie Nawahi, Andy Iona to name but three from the Islands and Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby … As a teacher, he numbers the likes of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple among his ex-students.

Such pioneers as Tapia helped develop Hawaiian jazz, with its sweet melody playing and fascinating sounds. (He was a member of the first jazz band in the Islands). Tropical Swing celebrates the style with 10 tracks, including two gems from the past, with Tapia playing ukulele and guitar mostly with the Essential Resophonics, a tremendous California-based trio adding steel and Spanish guitars and upright bass.

The album opens with a gentle “Mack the Knife”. Tapia plucks the melody on uke along with Buck Giles’s echoing chimes on steel guitar. Guitarist Eric Dyrenforth holds the rhythm with tight strums on the beat while bassist Jack Fire adds a deep foundation. Along with his inventive playing, Tapia also sings. His phrasing and intonation possess a vibrancy and swing that are perfectly suited to the melody.

This is followed by a number of tunes, including such classics as “Stardust”, “Mood Indigo”, and “Misty”, with the quartet of players creating a gentle, warm sound. Tapia constantly moves in unexpected directions with his improvisation while his companions provide a compact setting.

“Hawaiian Medley” and “Paradise Isle” move the album into a Hawaiian mood, with the distinctive musical phrases and chord sequences typical of Island music. But while he pays respect to their origins, they still receive the Tapia treatment — his ukulele constantly explores possibilities opened up by the tunes and the rhythm. In contrast, “Hapa Haole Hula Girl” is performed simply but as effectively, just voice and ukulele.

Although mainly a ukulele-led album, Tapia’s guitar playing is also featured. He presents a lazy, laid back version of “Body And Soul”, fingers easily dancing across the frets. Similarly, on “Paradise Isle”, he slides across the strings and bends notes, a perfect foil for the ringing steel guitar.

The album ends with two classic tracks recorded in 1936. “Stars and Stripes Forever/Sweethearts on Parade” features Tapia playing intricately at breakneck speed accompanied by bass and guitar; and “Tropical Swing”, featuring a five-piece band (bass, piano, steel, clarinet, and Tapia on guitar), Gordon Beecher on vocals, and harmony accompaniment, which also demonstrates Tapia’s skills in arranging.

Bill Tapia played at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki, in 1927. He was also present at the 75th anniversary celebrations, the only person who attended both events. His career spans the modern era of Hawaiian music; he is a pioneer and innovator who demonstrates the incredible versatility and potential of the humble ukulele; a musician who stands as an inspiration to lovers of fine music and to fellow musicians alike. Please don’t let it be another 96 years before the follow up is released!

PopMatters