Monday, August 6, 2012

Ken & Bob: Escape To Jazz Island

 Two veteran  string maestros ....
A traditional mix from the Hawaiian  up to Manhattan Island 
Hans Koert

I still feel the thrill visiting the Second Belgian Ukulele festival in Sint Niklaas, Belgium, a few years ago. The music, played during that festival, on that tiny, rather funny instrument or lap steel dobro, reminded me to the music of the early 1930s, when Hawaiian sounds, played by names like Sol Hoopii, Roy Smeck and Andy Sanella were legends on their instruments.
Ken & Bob, born as Kenton (Ken) R.L.Emerson ( Ken) and Robert (Bob) Armstrong, gave me that same feeling, while listening to their latest album Escape to Jazz Island, released by GrassSkirt records.
Ken & Bob - Escape To Jazz Island ( GrassSkirt GSK 1004) ( artwork: Robert Armstrongs)

Ken Emerson was born in California more then 60 years ago and started to play at the age of seven, the music he heard from his father's music collection at his mother's ukulele. He raised in a musical family which has its musical roots in Hawaii - his mother, Alice, started her career at the 1939 World's Fair Exhibition in San Francisco playing the uke. In 1968 Ken's family moved to Hawaii, where he became fascinated, together with his brother Phil, by the Hawaiian language and musical culture and became inspired by the 78rpm records of great legends like Sol Hoopii and Sol. K. Bright sr. - he even played with the latter, who passed away in 1992. Although Ken also accompanied numerous jazz and pop musicians like Taj Mahal, Dave Mason, Elvin Bishop and Graham Nash, he still loves to play these Hawaiian sounds .....
Ken (Emerson) & Bob (Armstrong) ( photo courtesy: Till Kreuger)

Bob Armstrong was inspired by early jazz, Hawaiian and string band recordings.
He became a member of the R. Crumb Cheap Suit Serenaders and a guest player at concerts and recordings by Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, where he can be heard as a vocalist, on the guitar, accordion, banjo or the musical saw. The great Parlor Boys, directed by ukulele girl Janet Klein are less known in this part of the world (  a shame). The Cheap Suit Serenaders however, directed by the bad boy cartoonist of the 1960s hippie culture and dedicated 78rpm record collector
R(obert) Crumb was very popular during the last decades. He moved, years ago, from the States to France. Bob has his love for collecting old 78rpm (Hawaiian) records, his work as a cartoonist and his fascination for early (jazz)music in common with Robert Crumb
 Label of Ken & Bob's Escape to Jazz Island ( Art work: Robert Armstrong)

Their album Escape to Jazz Island contains more then a dozen tracks, played by Ken & Bob, some tracks enlarged by piano player and vocalist David Paquette and singer Elaine Hoffman. The album contains, besides some own compositions, like Bees in Blue Flat and Minkow Tango, a lot of traditional jazz and Hawaiian tunes, like Frank Ferera's Palakiko Blues (which was first recorded November 1922 with Anthony Francini for Gennett), Roy Smeck's late 1940s Ukulele Bounce and the well known jazz classics  BreezeSomeday Sweetheart and Japanese Sandman.
 Ken (Emerson) & Bob (Armstrong) ( photo courtesy: Till Kreuger)

Personally I like tunes like Hapa Haole Hula Girl, originally recorded in 1915 for Columbia by Helen Louise and Frank Ferera or Tiger Shark as originally played by Peter, Michael, Joe and Jim Hodgkinson and their Hawaiian Islanders ( London May 1935).
Isn't it great that these two veteran string maestros, as they are labeled in the liner notes, keep this almost forgotten music alive?
Tracklist of Escape to Jazz Island ( art work (palm trees) by Ken Emerson)
You can order a copy of this album by Ken & Bob, entitled  Escape to Jazz Island at the GrassSkirt website.

Hans Koert
Facebook group Keep (it) Swinging
Ask for its newsletter.

The Hawaiian and Hawaiian-related music as played by legends like Sol Hoopii, Sol. K. Bright and Roy Smeck, now almost forgotten, was very popular, when the world went through a crisis 80 years ago - the depression of the 1930s. Nowadays it seems a new crisis lies in wait, so be prepared ........ Ken & Bob, Ken Emerson and Robert Armstrong, offer you a way to survive the next crisis by Escaping to Jazz Island ..... GrassSkirt released their latest album Hawaiian style Escape to Jazz Island!
RetrospectKeep Swinging (old) Oscar Aleman Choro Music Flexible Records Hit of the Week-Durium Friends of the Keep Swinging blog Keep Swinging Contributions


  1. Thanks for this review of a great album that relives times when popular music was worth your ears and dimes, moreover - like here - performed by musicians knowing their stuff inside-out. Thanks to Grassskirt Records for keeping this tradition alive by releasing enjoyable recordings like these - and of course thanks to Ken & Bob for doing a great job!

  2. Great guys... great tunes! Thanks for the article.