Lisa Ono
Bossa Hula Nova






I love Lisa Ono. Like Diana Krall, she is able to enchant the listeners with her voice – but both voices mentioned here are only half the fun for me. To my mind, the music-related settings, instruments and moods are as important. That's nothing special, for there are very few artists who rely solely on their voice and release a cappella albums or similar experiments. So what I've just described is the normal selling point of the Pop and even the vocal Jazz genre: you like a certain song because of the lyrics, the vocal qualities and the instrumental soundscapes created with the help of keyboards, for instance, or via the skilled fusion of percussive elements with melodious hooks.


What is so special about Lisa Ono's Bossa Hula Nova? For one, the album is tied to the Exotica genre, even more so than its resemblence of the Brazilian style of Latin music. The melodies are top-notch, the instruments and the band are subordinate to Ono's voice while at the same time carefully set up and configured to create terrifically lush backings. While you won't hear other favorite topics of Exotica – savages, beasts, field recordings or overly exhilarant compositions –, Ono comes up with an implicit bossa nova depiction of a brightly-lit tropical island.


Composed and arranged by Mario Adnet, he and Ono come up with traditional songs, unique compositions and renditions of classics which are then transformed into blissful tunes by the primarily Japanese band members, among them long-time collaborators Hiroshi Fukumura and Kiichiro Komobuchi. The, admittedly staged, front artwork points you into the direction this record is about (and asks you to ignore the typographic apostrophe-related error). This is a modern version of Easy Listening, you cannot help yourself but to feel good and comfortable in the aural surroundings of Ono's record. She herself is the other important factor, as mentioned before: her vocals sound pitch-perfect, she gives the impression of having tremendous fun in delivering a care-free, oftentimes intimate performance. Yes, it is only an illusion, but Pop music and Exotica are all about good-natured ploys and resemblances, so you won't hear any complaints from my side. In fact, I'll analyze the positive peculiarities and tiny disadvantages of Bossa Hula Nova in the following paragraphs.


Swing Time In Honolulu / No Céu Azul In Honolulu opens the disc (yes, no vinyl this time, folks) in that typical lofty, entrancing way: a mélange of piano notes, alto flute backings, acoustic guitar pluckings, vibraphone glints and gentle percussion forms the perfect background for Ono's silky Portuguese and English vocals, a concept that she uses time and again on the following songs as well, often times shuttling between different languages. Ono even sings in Hawaiian on later tracks! Duke Ellington's effervescently joyful presentation is perfectly captured by Ono and is enhanced – some would admittedly say: spoiled – by finger snaps and an electronic grand piano.To my mind, this is a pitch-perfect gateway of Ono's Hawaiian journey.


Nani Wai 'Ale 'Ale is a traditional song of the islands and breaks the spell of the previous classic. The small brass ensemble, consisting of a trombone, a french horn and a flügelhorn delivers a slightly Latin performance, while the electric piano adds a complemental iridescence to Ono's smooth voice. The steel pans played by Yoshihiro Harada, though, are the killer addition and are only used on this track, adding a pinch of Trinidad to the mix. Ono's version of the classic Blue Hawaii by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger creates a mood that is similar to Swing Time In Honolulu, but a few additional instruments build a cherubic superstructure that make this a tremendously laid back tune. Among the new additions is the vibraphone which is the only instrument whose sustain can exit the background and put itself to the front. The bridges and vocal-less intersections are filled with quick piano melodies. At the end, Ono's voice is tripled and ends this track on a magical note. A strong tune, if at times a bit too sugar-sweet for me.


Manoa by Alberto Beserra and Carlos A. de Oliveira begins with the only field recording of the album, consisting of gentle waves, followed by a tropical groove and dreamy Portuguese lyrics by Ono who is accompanied on the chorus by her arranger Mario Adnet. Another highlight is the banjo-like bandolim played by Oh Akioka that sounds very placid and is the fitting instrumental foil to Ono's voice. The song encapsulates the feeling of beach walks on sunny afternoons. The paradisiac alto flute in the background further increases the lightness and makes this a gorgeously care-free song which I rate very highly and which is among my favorite Ono songs. The team Ono/Adnet is also available on Mauna Loa, an original ballad written by Ono herself. This is the most reduced song on the album, only consisting of a piano, one clarinet and two celli. It is absolutely intimate and dreamy, and while the Hawaiian mood is broken and barely perceptible, this is the perfect song for sunsets.


Hawaiian Vamp / Nova Hula breaks the spell of the album yet again and is built on bongo beats and a cheeky five-note clarinet accompaniment that is coupled with Latin brass sections and Hawaiian steel guitars. This is the perfect track for Waikiki beach walks on a bustling afternoon and a nice counterpoint to the dreamy atmosphere of Mauna Loa. The Latin spirit of the brass instruments plus the jumpy piano notes create a jazzy atmosphere in which Oni's voice seems strangely incongruous, I suppose. She sings in the same lulling soft manner as before, but her surroundings have changed on this swinging track, suggesting a more powerful approach.


Beyond The Reef is one of those classical Exotica tunes that work enormously well as an instrumental, but truly shine when a skilled singer provides the vocals. Enter, of course, Lisa Ono, who favors another laid back and reduced presentation over a vibraphone-laden output. In fact, there's no mallet instrument anywhere near this track, quite a change when you're used to Arthur Lyman's iconic version on his album Bahia (1959). Mrs. Ono uses the power of four celli as well as her own skills on the acoustic guitar. Piano dots in the background round off one of the best superimpositions of resplendent strings and mesmeric peace.


The same can be said about Kaimana Hila, which is yet another dreamy track, an adjective I cannot use enough describing Bossa Hula Nova. Acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, trombone and exotic percussion are the ingredients. The rattles are always perceptible and sound like gentle breezes. Their juxtaposition with Ono's vocals and another skilled performance by Febian Reza Pane on the piano make this a mellifluous, cozy track. The piano seems to play arbitrarily along, but Pane accomplishes to make the piano a great addition, while at the same time allowing Ono to be in the limelight. However, once you concentrate on this interplay between vocals and space, piano and pauses, you notice that he enhances the song in a good way.


Up next is the best track of the album, Sway It, Hula Girl which not only blends the bossa nova style with Hawaii via its lyrics, but also due to its instrumental setup: the electronic piano works perfectly in unison with the alto flute melodies, and Ono's Portuguese and English lyrics are almost whispered and very fragile, but you can always hear happiness and contentment shimmer through. The eight-ote motif of the main melody is perfectly hummable. The percussion is particularly quiet, letting the melody shine all the more. A perfect song which is followed by a successful rendition of the most famous Hawaiian track on Earth, Aloha 'Oe as the album's closer. Heard and interpreted a thousand times before, Ono adds nothing new to the tower of versions, but introduces Theresa Bright as a background singer on the album and comes up with Portuguese lyrics written by Lysias Enio. An obvious, mandatory album closer, but a good one nonetheless.

Bossa Hula Nova is another one of these records that moves between several styles, being neither Latin, nor jazzy, Pop record or an Exotica entry. I adore this blend of several styles and genres with Lisa Ono's voice which is as able to transport happiness to the ears of the listener as intimacy and romance. Throw a few field recordings in and you have a rose-tinted Jazz record with Exotica remnants, such as the sparkling sound of the vibraphone or the string ensemble that encapsulates the lush vividness of Les Baxter and sets these qualities free in many situations.


Lisa Ono presents both intimate serenades as well as pitch-perfect Pop tunes that are skillfully masked as avantgarde Jazz compositions. Somehow, and I don't know exactly how, Lisa Ono is able to create this certain atmosphere of Exotia and Easy Listening tunes of the 50's and 60's, making Bossa Hula Nova a timeless album that lets you escape from current woes onto a rapturous island, and although I do not understand Portuguese, I can still enjoy Ono's voice, the music itself and the few English songs she has integrated on the album. Mauna Loa is my ballad-related top pick, and Beyond The Reef next to Sway It, Hula Girl are my preferred choices overall. Pre-listen to those, as they show Lisa Ono's varied style. Two of these tunes are tremendously dreamy and definitely Hawaiian in their setting, while the latter is an exhilarantly happy tune with catchy lyrics and melodious hooks.


Exotica Review 061: Lisa Ono – Bossa Hula Nova (2001). Originally published on Apr. 21, 2012 at