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Ozzie Kotani
To Honor A Queen (E Ho'ohiwahiwa I Ka Mo'l Wahine
Dancing Cat Records

cd cover The term 'slack key' covers a multitude of approaches to Hawaiian guitar styles ranging from the classical to the blues by way of folk, country, swing and more. It depends on the guitarist which particular style manifests itself, yet they all reflect Hawaii. Ozzie Kotani is a rare player, in that he appears to have captured a wide array of elements: his opening track, "He' Ai Na Kalani," is bright and breezy, an excellent example of folk picking; the second track, Pauahi 'O Kalani, takes us into a near-baroque realm; by the time you reach the introduction of the third track, "Ka 'Oiwi Nani," Kotani has introduced jazz elements with cool chord progressions.

As the album flows from one world of music to another, the unifying fundamental elements of slack key are all present but interpreted in Kotani's special way: the dynamic combination of melody, played usually on the higher strings, along with bass runs and chord accompaniment; his ornamentation - harmonics, slides, cascades of tumbling notes, hammering on and pulling off - colors the tunes with images of the Islands, and mirrors the chants and singing of the people. He also adds harmony and counterpoint, which serve to enhance the beauty in the melodies.

And the melodies are truly inspiring. As the album title suggests, these are royal tunes, composed by Queen Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch. Music was (and is) held in high regard and from an early age, Lili'uokalani developed her talents as a composer, singer and musician. A prolific writer, many of her tunes today are instantly recognizable and associated with Hawaii, including the ubiquitous "Aloha 'Oe," which is also featured on the album.

Kotani presents 14 songs on the 13 instrumental tracks, including many seldom-heard pieces. From his phrasing, one can almost hear the lyrics, that tell of the land, wildlife, love, food, travels and more. The liner notes are excellent. Written by J.W. Junker and George Winston, they give background information on each tune as well as details on other recorded versions; they also note the keys and tunings used by Kotani on each track. There is a useful list of resources, too.

But first and foremost, it is Ozzie Kotani's playing that captures the heart. A true student of the instrument, he takes slack key guitar playing to an unbelievably high level, creating inspiring images that move the listener. Whether playing with steel or the more rarely heard nylon strings, he offers an emotional approach along with thoughtful arrangements and well-selected tunes. - Jamie O'Brien

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