Jimmy Borges spent 60 years entertaining the celebrities, dignitaries, tourists, and regulars who came to see him hold court on the stage of his dreams. After attracting the attention of one very big celebrity, movie star Shirley MacLaine, while hoofing it in San Francisco’s Forbidden City at the height of the ‘50s, Borges burst onto the Vegas and New York City Latin Quarter scene with his special brand of aloha.
He soon became Hawaii’s own version of the 1950s Rat Pack, even gaining the favor of Frank Sinatra himself. (Borges received the distinction of being the only musician allowed access to the Sinatra song library.)
When the Hawaiian/Portuguese/Chinese jazz entertainer returned home to Hawaii, he quickly became the toast of the town as Waikiki’s #1 destination, representing that special aloha to everyone who visited.
He’s always gone on with the show, always looking for the next jam, the next inspiration, whether playing with the band or playing with actors on several hit TV shows, including Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum P.I..
A legendary jazz entertainer like Borges had very little time to consider an album. Oh, he’s done one or two early on in his illustrious career, but never as hand’s-on as this one coming out on October 9 with Mountain Apple Company, the only game in town in Hawaii and known for producing quality, award-winning Hawaiian music.
This past summer, Borges — who survived liver cancer — reached two milestones: He turned 80 and he finally made the record he always wanted to. Simply titled, Jimmy Borges, the record is a 12-track love song to the many people he’s touched and who’ve touched his life — in splendid musical form.
As is Borges’ style, he has the best band with him, made up of musicians he’s worked with in many past gigs. They come together to not only play the notes to his singular, quicksilver mannerisms — breaking casual conversation to slip in a double-entendre, references to Hanalei, intimate, emotional banquets — but to help arrange the tunes to his mercurial, inventive liking.
They include his righthand man, Hawaii Pops conductor Matt Catingub on piano, keyboardist Dan Del Negro, faithful accompanist Betty Loo Taylor, guitarist Zanuck Lindsey, bassist Stephen Jones, trumpeter DeShannon Higa, drummers Noel Okimoto and Steve Moretti. Catingub and Del Negro, together with Borges, handled the unusual arrangements that simulated a typical show at say, Waikiki’s Trappers, circa 1970s, in the golden age of Hawaii jazz, when it was all about the improvisational interplay and the lighthearted fun.
With a massive celebration coming up — “Celebrating Frank Sinatra’s 100th Birthday” — co-starring the Hawaii Pops November 28 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom, Borges is still sitting on top of the world even as he contemplates his pseudo-retirement.
This album is the perfect way for Borges to end the show, so to speak, leaving a lasting legacy in the tunes he put his heart and soul into. When Borges gives interviews lately, he’s often melancholy, contemplative, and acutely aware of his remaining years. All that plays into this new album, in the song choices and the sensitive, wise undertones of his voice — weathered, yet matured with age.
These songs are his favorites to perform live. In fact, listening to them is the next best thing to being there at one of his personalized concerts. But they’re also overflowing with real-life meaning, sung by a man who’s trying to say goodbye.
“Old Devil Moon” opens with a swanky, silky groove laid down by Higa, a jazz trumpeter and composer who loves to carve out daring, almost rebellious outcroppings. Here, he shows a flair for the old school without losing his gritty, street soul. Higa pairs smoothly with the easy-swinging, sophisticated razzle dazzle of Borges in his prime, deep as merlot.
If there ever was a calling card for this man, it’s “Here’s To Life.” It’s hard to believe the Artie Butler standard made famous by Shirley Horn in the 1990s wasn’t specifically written for Borges. But Borges takes full ownership of this new standard, looking back on his own life and taking stock through the lyrics about mortality and no regrets.
As he does throughout this album, Borges breaks the character of a standard performer by taking those lyrics seriously to heart. When he alternates from singing to half-talking, “I had my share, I drank my fill. And even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still, to see what’s down another road, beyond a hill, and do it all again,” it’s as if he’s musing to himself, full of every emotion that an end of life can conjure.
Mostly, he shares himself fully in his response to those songs he knows and loves so well — a rare find in the business of churning out records just to fill a standard. “As long as I’m still in the game, I want to play. For laughs, for life, for love,” sums up everything this jazz veteran’s about. The album goes beyond the songs and the song stylings (“Luck Be A Lady’s” samba arrangement is a genius stand-out and vintage Borges), to what the artist is feeling and thinking while he’s singing these moving lyrics.
Finally, no other song represents Borges’ fond aloha better than “Aloha ‘Oe,” sung countless times at countless luaus to clueless tourists. Penned by Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii in the 1800s and an anthem for the unjust U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian royalty, “Aloha ‘Oe” takes on a whole other meaning in Taylor’s gentle hands and Borges’ heartfelt vocals. Considering the many adventures enjoyed by these two at many exciting gigs in Waikiki, the ending is quite karmic.
Is Jimmy Borges’ voice perfectly fluid, strong, and commanding throughout the album? At times, his voice can barely reach some of the harder notes, wavering from one range to another to get there, and feels a bit too much like sitting in on a private moment (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Wildflower”). At other times, you wish he would get up there faster and put some more juice into it (“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”).
But the man is 80. He lived a life not many can claim. This album is his claim to the Great American Songbook, and it’s all aloha. It’s enough.