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From then to now

Gary Chun listens to Bennett, Brubeck, and Johnson

For this week, let’s listen in on music that’s something old and something new: “the old” from a world-famous singer with a storied career who still finds inspiration on the contemporary scene, and “the new” from a world-famous musician who finds inspiration from his beloved wife and adopted island home.

First off, Tony Bennett, 87 years young, who recently did a sold-out show at the Blaisdell Concert Hall doing what he does best, that is interpret lyrics from the Great American Songbook with an innate understanding like no other. Amongst the songs the wonderful Bennett sang that night were “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the hit that broke open his career back in 1962.

That song was a national hit for only a couple of weeks when Bennett and the Dave Brubeck Quartet did a special White House-sponsored show outdoors at the base of the Washington Monument, the recording of which has been released by Columbia/Legacy as “Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962.”

For those who attended the Honolulu show and need something to tide them over before the anticipated release of his duet jazz album with Lady Gaga in January next year, the White House Sessions makes for a pleasant souvenir for Bennett fans.

Bennett and his band (including who would turn out to be his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon) followed Brubeck in the show — and, by the way, if you’re a Brubeck fan, you’ll want to pick up this historic album, because the pianist and his guys, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and the superb drummer Joe Morello, are all in top form here. There’s a generous amount of soloing and one can never hear too much of the signature “Take Five.”

While Bennett’s voice has mellowed a bit with age, here on this 1962 recording, you definitely hear a more vibrant, younger version of the great man. Highlights include his takes on a couple of Broadway tunes, “Small World” and “Make Somebody Happy,” the aforementioned “One for My Baby” and a slower and subdued version of “San Francisco” that is a welcome departure from the then-new recording that would make him famous.

Both Bennett and Brubeck would join forces at show’s end, and Bennett shows his jazz chops by doing an unrehearsed take on “Lullaby of Broadway” and the night’s final number, “There Will Never Be Another You,” that is a tour-de-force for both men.

Flash-forward 51 years, and here is Jack Johnson’s latest album “From Here to Now to You” (Brushfire/Universal). Even though Johnson has made his reputation here as not only a musician but an environmentalist, thanks to the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation he oversees with his wife Kim, it’s hard to fathom for local fans how humongous an international star he is.

Johnson is just starting to tour elsewhere behind the new album after a three-year hiatus from extensive travel. His fans have come out in droves for his one-off appearances at the Bonnaroo Festival and just last month at Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid 2013 in Sarasota Springs, N.Y.

I think that’s because Johnson’s music is awash with a loving island vibe, and that’s certainly evident on the new album. Compared to 2010’s “To the Sea,” for me Johnson’s most interesting album due to his addressing his father’s death, “From Here to Now to You” is practically made with sunshine, best heard on a laidback morning-afternoon, with songs “recorded with solar energy” and presented with an aural clarity.

There’s a nice flow to the album, kicking off with Johnson’s whistling on the sweet and simple “I Got You.” Things remain warm and inviting with “Washing Dishes,” “Shot Reverse Shot,” the love song “Never Fade” (with a reference to Johnson’s earliest hit “Bubbletoes”) and one of my favorites, “Tape Deck,” done up acoustic style with a hint of melodica. I particularly like Johnson’s impressionistic and fun lyrics here, a rememberance of his very early years of trying to form a punk band inspired by Minor Threat.

Another favorite (and one that Johnson likes himself for its moments of self-discovery) is “As I Was Saying,” where he earnestly tells a loved one “I don’t want to disappoint you/I don’t want to disappear/From here or now or you.”

The uplifting “Radiate” appears to be the new jam song for Johnson’s upcoming concerts, as Johnson and his longtime backing band of Zach Gill, Adam Topol and Merlo Podlewski stretch out the backbeat with strange guitar sounds for added color.

Johnson literally brings it back home by album’s end, but not before one of his more overt message songs “Ones and Zeros “and the cautionary “Change,” featuring guest Ben Harper on his trademark Weissenborn slide guitar. Filled with the sounds of birds, the closing “Home” — originally heard on the 2004 soundtrack album to the surf documentary “A Brokedown Melody” —  is a simple declaration of where the man finds his love and strength, mainly his place of sanctuary on the North Shore.