The Honolulu Jazz Quarter Turns Twenty

Liner Notes by Robert Pennybacker


The Honolulu Jazz Quartet was formed by bassist John Kolivas, at the urging of his musician mother Dolly, just a few months before September 11, 2001.  The group marked its 20th anniversary in the throes of the worldwide pandemic.  That this milestone achievement by Hawai`i’s most enduring jazz combo is framed by the two most tumultuous, world-changing events of this century is emblematic of how we have all survived in these challenging times: by moving forward, straight ahead.  Indeed, it is the very essence of improvisational jazz to constantly flow, or sometimes push, forward through the chord changes of a song, always in search of reaching new musical heights, of playing something no one has ever heard before.   This album, the group’s fourth, is a celebration of their perpetual movement forward, straight ahead, through two decades of trials and triumphs.  It is also a harbinger the musical adventures that await them as they embark—straight ahead—into their third decade. 


One of the secrets to the group’s longevity is that they are a musical democracy.  Although Kolivas is HJQ’s founder, the quartet has no front-man in the traditional sense (i.e., the John Coltrane Quartet).  The front-man has always been the sound the group makes together.  Every time they perform, four distinctive, highly individualistic musicians come together to create one sound, a sound that is far greater than the sum of its parts.  When hearing John Kolivas strike a note on his bass, a soft, warm feeling shoots up your spine and radiates to your face.  His playing lays down a bottom so solid a herd of elephants could dance over it.   Saxophonist Tim Tsukiyama channels the all-time great artists on his instrument—Lester Young, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and Wilton Felder.  But he has a distinctive voice of his own and is a thinking man’s horn player.  Dan Del Negro hails from the South Side of Chicago and brings a funk sensibility to the group.  But Dan can play anything: from musical theatre; to be-bop; to spacey Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner chords; to Funkadelic, to classical, and all points in between.  When Noel Okimoto took over as the group’s percussionist (replacing Von Baron after his move to Japan), everyone knew that the Honolulu Jazz Quartet had come of age.  Noel’s Hawai`i-jazz legacy, from his days with the legendary Gabe Baltazar and with the Betty Loo Taylor trio backing up the incomparable Jimmy Borges, brings a maturity, precision, and power to the Honolulu Jazz Quartet that has taken the group to a whole new level.

The HJQ is also democratic in the way each member has a hand in composing and/or arranging the group’s tunes.  On this album:  

Kolivas’ Scarborough Fair (Cut 1) gives the traditional English folk song, made popular by Simon & Garfunkel, an eclectic jazz arrangement that takes the listener on a journey.  His Economic Blues (Cut 7) is a minor blues in ¾ (a jazz waltz) that expresses the anguish of his family’s financial woes, especially during the COVID-19 era.  About They Grow Up Too Fast (Cut 10), Kolivas says, “What parent hasn’t said these words?  This being HJQ’s 20th year together, my kids Kainalu and Kalei grew up with the quartet and would even dance on stage to the music.  Alas, they are older now, but the remembrance of small-kid times lingers in our hearts.”


Del Negro’s Boppin’ in Baltimore (Cut 6) is a hip-hop style instrumental inspired by the sights he saw on a trip to Baltimore—the harbor, historic neighborhoods, and the Eubie Blake Museum.  His Fascinatin’ Rhythm (Cut 8), draws on the song’s composer George Gershwin’s comment (referring to he and his lyricist brother Ira) that “…the title covered part of the first bar only, and there was many a hot argument between us as to where the accents should fall in the rest of the words.”  Del Negro’s original composition, Wes’ Side, Brah! (Cut 11), is dedicated to the beautiful West Side of O`ahu, the local culture, and the local Jawaiian reggae music.


The title of Tsukiyama’s Right Back with the Snack (Cut 3) comes from a quote in his favorite Yogi Bear cartoon, in which the smarter-than-your-average bear exclaims “I’ll be right back with the snack…Jack!”  In Bess You is my Woman (Cut 4), one of his favorite Gershwin compositions, Tim’s arrangement adds some rhythmic elements to the ballad that suggest a little “funkiness”.   Tsukiyama’s Carl’s Way Home (Cut 9) is a Motown-flavored groove “written for one of my old friends from Middle School who died way too early from cancer.”


In his arrangement Wichita Lineman (Cut 12), the Jimmy Webb song made famous by Glen Campbell, Okimoto says he “re-harmonized a little and added a blowing section for improvisation.   Otherwise, it maintains the poignant, pensive mood of the original.”  Regarding his jazz re-working of the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys classic In My Room (Cut 2), Noel remarks that his version is “far from the mood of the original, and that’s because of the change in the rhythm.  It’s a lot faster as a jazz waltz, and I used more seventh chords to lend a more bluesy sound.”  Of his Blues 9.5 (Cut  5), in which he replaces the traditional blues twelve bar structure to nine and a half, Noel says, “it’s fun to challenge oneself with different forms, especially with something as entrenched as the blues.”  


Noel had the honor of penning and arranging the title track, Straight Ahead (Cut 13) a Be-Bop type of tune whose title, he says, “has taken on a double meaning for the band in regards to the challenges of the last two years and the pandemic.  It’s an inspiring motto to keep on track and move Straight Ahead.” 

Like a twenty-year-old Scotch, the Honolulu Jazz Quartet has matured into a rich, complex, mellow smokiness that goes down easy but still packs a wallop.  Don’t add any mixers to it.  You’ll want to enjoy it straight. . .ahead.


  • "The Honolulu Jazz Quartet (HJQ) is one of the state's most popular contemporary jazz bands, and Sounds Of The City is a satisfying document of their straight-ahead style." - Todd Jenkins, DOWNBEAT Magazine

    For more information, call John Kolivas at (808) 383-3909


    E-mail: hjqjazz@gmail.com

    HJQ members belong to the Musicians' Association of Hawaii, Local 677/AFM

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    Honolulu Jazz Quartet

    "The Honolulu Jazz Quartet - through its performances at the Hawaii International Jazz Festival, the Honolulu Symphony Pops, and jazz venues throughout Hawaii - is ready to be recognized in jazz scenes throughout the world, as is manifestly, invigoratingly evident in 'Sounds of the City' and now 'Tenacity.'"
     - Nat Hentoff, author "Jazz Is", "The Jazz Life", Listen to the Stories", and "American Music Is"

    HJQ performs at the Sheraton Kapa'a on Kaua'i August 20, 2022

    The Kaua'i Concert Association presents the Honolulu Jazz Quartet on August 20, 2022 at the Sheraton Kapa'a on beautiful Kaua'i! Show starts at 7:00 p.m. It's been years since the HJQ has performed on Kaua'i. We are so looking forward to this! Please come if you can.

    Here's A Link To The Event:


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    Last modified: October 24, 2008