Onizuka's trio at the Paragon on NW Hoyt and NW 13th Avenue in the Pearl District of Portland. We had been introduced by our mutual friend Jay "Bird" Koder at a Monday night SoulMates' performance. Toshi invited us to come see him at the Paragon on any Sunday afternoon from 4 pm to 7 pm where he would be playing with another mutual friend, the great drummer Reinhardt Melz.
We knew that we liked Toshi Onizuka as a friend and "Bird" had told us that Toshi "definitely has the chops." But we were really not prepared for what greeted us on Sunday afternoon. Not prepared at all.
With Toshi and Reinhardt is Jon Hughes on 5 string bass and he plays with it
beautifully. When asked between sets how he came to play the 5 string, he said
that he started it four years ago after someone had broken into his vehicle and
boosted all of his gear. He shook his head like Mr. Bojangles and said, "leaving
you're gear in a vehicle...the one thing you never do." So he needed a bass for
the gig and a friend of his offered to give him a 5 string bass to help build back his equipment list and he has played that same 5 string ever since. And he plays it well.
I have written at length about drummer Reinahardt Melz but almost always within the context of his playing with Jay "Bird" Koder and Jarrod Lawson as part of the SoulMates. I had previously thought that I couldn't possibly say much more about Reinhardt's talents but, again, I was wrong. This was a completely different setting with completely different musicians in a
completely different genre. Reinhardt truly can play it all.
honing his chosen style and craft. He has been in Portland for over 12 years now and has spent most of his time performing at El Gaucho at the Benson Hotel. He has lamented the fact that he came late to the guitar at age twenty but his playing shows that his heart and desire have more than made up for any time he might consider lost. There is a deep emotional undertone to his crafty
Toshi plays lyrically and he can play percussively in the style so well served by flamenco attributes. This was showcased in the song Costa where Toshi and Reinhardt are punching at the snappy rhythm as Jon plays the melody on bass underneath it all. It was hot and sweet! Then Toshi lays off the strings and plays rhythm on the soundboard in step with Reinhardt.
There is great precision but there is amazing heart in Toshi's playing. It speaks of the depth of character within him. There is a grace in his playing that can only be a reflection of the grace within himself. There are pressures and distractions that audiences never know and need not know. But character and heart and grace... call it as you will... give strength that allows them to play through it all and can even be enhanced by it all.
Reinhardt was playing through a physical distraction and it never showed, not
once, in his playing. He kept finding that groove and Toshi and Jon fell in
seamlessly and smoothly with those stunning melodies and harmonies.
The best example of that was during one of Toshi's own compositions. The piece was called Light in Shade and carried a meditative feel with that tugging groove. The harmonies of guitar and bass were moving and the lead switching was just electric. However, above all that, were these modulations that were so emotional, so enlightening, so satisfying.
I'll confess, my wife looked at me and said, "You're crying..." That was really the only right response from me at that moment--tears.
Satisfying. Yes, that has to be the word to describe it for me. It may sound overly-emotional or sentimental or whatever but I was simply satisfied with what was happening around me and to me.
And I didn't want it to stop.