By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
Hiromi Kanda sat in one of the subterranean mixing studios at Capitol Records last fall, thumbing through a portfolio of photos for her new album, when a passage on playback caught her ear.
Her husband, Yusuke Hoguchi, and legendary recording engineer Al Schmitt were debating the quality of a low note in her smoky vocal performance of “I Love Paris,” the first track on the just-released “Days Of Yesterday.”
“Sonnani waruku nai – That’s not so bad,” Kanda insists.
After several minutes of re-listening and discussion, Hoguchi, a veteran producer with the instincts of an old pro and – perhaps more importantly – an experienced husband, turns to see the shape of his wife’s expression.
The vocal stays as is.
Kanda’s taut yet intimate rendition of the Cole Porter classic leads off her latest album with clear intent of what’s to follow. It is nothing short of a love letter to the kind of music that has stirred her over the decades, after her 1977 debut in Japan as a 19-year-old pop idol.
“Days Of Yesterday” is that rare tribute to a bygone era of featured vocalists singing great songs that actually succeeds. There have been several pop stars (usually near the latter parts of their careers) who have tried their hand at the Great American Songbook, with mixed results.
One stands out brilliantly: Diahann Carroll’s 1978 “Tribute to Ethel Waters.” Though known primarily as an actress, Carroll’s performances with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on this now out-of-print gem ooze a love of, and respect for, the music. Kanda’s new album – which by the way, has been pressed in limited quantities on LP as well as on CD – is every bit as effective in conveying its affection for the material.
“My husband and I really love American music,” Kanda said from Honolulu, where she and Hoguchi now live full-time. “We’ve been listening to these songs, this kind of classic music as long as we can remember. We wanted to see how well we could recreate this music that we love and also, in America, there are so many very talented musicians and producers that it makes sense to have them for this kind of project.”
From the first beat of “Days,” their dedication is clear. Hoguchi has made no effort to hide the fact that this is, after all, a labor of love, hiring the very best talent available to work on the project. First and foremost is the multi-Grammy-winning Schmitt, who has worked with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Rosemary Clooney.
And if you’re going to record some iconic standards, why not do so in an equally iconic facility? A no-brainer for Hoguchi, who booked the recording sessions at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood. Kanda said despite the history of the building, she was unfazed about recording in the same quarters as Sinatra, Judy Garland and Nat King Cole.
“Honestly, I had so many things to take care of, the history never crossed my mind,” Kanda recalled.
They also secured legendary Crusaders pianist Joe Sample for the album, which was mastered by music heavyweight Bernie Grundman.
As they did for her previous effort, 2009’s “Hiromi In Love,” Kanda and Hoguchi have written some original songs for the album, a bold effort, considering they sit alongside classics such as “All Of Me,” “It Had To Be You” and “Smile.”
“The reason the classic songs are so wonderful is because of the feelings they convey,” she explained. “We wanted to try our best not to necessarily match the music that is decades old, but to contribute to the spreading of those wonderful emotions.”
Of the three originals, the rousing “Dreamer,” with Kanda’s toying with the lyric “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” stands particularly nicely with the rest of the playlist.
As a native of Japan, her accent occasionally distracts from the music, at other times, adds a romantic draw to it. Kanda said she has been working on her diction while singing and the improvement is apparent, compared to her last release. Her style, however, is solid, ranging from a delicate whisper in your ear to full-throttle wailing.
As much of a star here are the impeccable orchestrations, arranged by former Honolulu Symphony head Matt Catingub. In her early days in Japan, Kanda preferred orchestral productions to the pop fare of the day, so the classic style is hardly a new direction for her.
“When I was singing in Japan, my style used a lot of orchestrations, with a lot of really fine musicians. To me, this isn’t such a big difference,” she said.
Following the Rafu Shimpo article for the release of “Hiromi In Love,” we received several inquiries as to where Kanda would be performing live. This is not a genre of music that is commonly performed on a regular basis, complete with full orchestra, and many callers expressed a shared affection for not only the music but for the experience of a live showcase for these classics.
While no dates are firm yet, Kanda said that a November performance at the Catalina in West Hollywood is in the planning stages.
The most satisfying attribute of “Days Of Yesterday” is its dedication to the material, old and new, without letting the performer upstage the great music. In an industry that is all too often driven by minutely tailored self-image, it is nothing short of heartwarming to see the passion with which Kanda and her husband have flung themselves headlong into this often overlooked musical universe. She has embraced the Great American Songbook like an old sweetheart, grabbing it with both hands and adding a few pages of her own along the way.