Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Atta
I began my last post with an aside on the dearth of female record producers down the ages. Said aside quickly snowballed and very nearly pushed my album notes to the periphery. Since I am fond of the thought that nothing succeeds like an excess of excess, I will now continue in that vein, extolling the merit of one more lady producer: Margaret Williams, proprietor of Tradewinds Records. Allow me first to decorate the stage:
Much has been written about the ‘70s renaissance of roots music in Hawai’i, spearheaded by the immortal Charles Philip “Gabby” Pahinui. Some musically sensitive honkies in G-8 countries are familiar with his slack-key and lap steel guitar playing, owing to a mid-'70s collaboration with Californian guitarist Ry Cooder over the span of two Gabby Pahinui Band albums, both of them thoroughly enjoyable. Additionally, Gabby made a 1976 guest appearance on Cooder's own Chicken Skin Music. Pahinui was the acme of soulfulness. His innate authenticity was evident from note one forward, both in his singing and playing, and in this regard he compares favorably with England's Robert Wyatt. Hawaiians still regard him as musical royalty, which is saying something given that actual titled folk have done their fair share of songwriting in Pahinui’s native archipelago. (He didn't live like royalty, though; Gabby worked on road crews throughout his adult life.) If you can find any of the half-dozen Gabby Pahinui albums issued on the Panini label, the great work of Gabby’s later years being impetus for Steve Siegfried to launch Panini, please buy these without pausing to think about it. You can thank me later.
Leland ‘Atta’ Isaacs was a central figure in the Cooder-produced Gabby Pahinui Band. He and Gabby recorded as well for Margaret Williams’ Tradewinds label; their duet album, Two Slack Key Guitars: A-Livin’ On A Easy, plays like maypole ribbons unfurling in slow motion, mixes well on warmer days with the traditional recipe for Pimm’s Cup, and is too short by half. Possibly aware of this last fact, producer Williams, when reissuing Two Slack Key Guitars... on aluminum, added four cuts from another Tradewinds album she had produced. An instrumental set, Atta also was frustratingly concise, but within its limited playing time managed to showcase all that is beguiling about a most Hawaiian invention, the tuned-down acoustic guitar format known as slack key. Atta also made a very good case for Mr. Isaacs as a stand-alone artist. The pianist George Winston is a slack-key maven non pareil; his Dancing Cat label put state-of-the-art technology in the service of Hawai’i’s best guitarists. Dancing Cat CD packaging might be demeaned by the expression 'labor of love,' with booklets supplying history, tunings, family trees, everything short of the brand of beer consumed during the sessions. Yet, for all Winston’s commendable efforts, I don’t think he’s ever nailed anything like the jeweled movement that is Atta.
And so, to the record’s producer: When trying to locate a copy of Atta many years ago, I mailed a note to the Tradewinds address in Honolulu. Months later, Ms. Williams herself responded with a handwritten letter, explaining that she had closed the label. She thanked me for my interest. She also enclosed a copy of the Atta lp, gratis. I was given to understand that she had retired to Richmond, CA., a place where the right piece of property nets a swell view of huge oil tanks. So this is where Hawaiians retire. Go figure.
For her part in the proceedings, Ms. Williams earned marks as a producer whose good taste will outlive her. Her liner notes point out that “Atta uses a new 12-string guitar with delightful results.” By my own cynical lights, ‘delightful’ qualifies as a treacly Victorian descriptor on all but the sunniest of days. Producer Williams obviously has dignity to spare and her use of that word connotes her joy in knowing the job was done well; it seems obvious that she was proud of Atta in his accomplishment and quietly proud, too, of her own work in the control room. The recordings made by Ms. Williams play to the gleam of Isaacs’ steel strings, his laid-back brio and that of the trio accompanying him on each cut. I’d like to think that Atta’s brother Norman played double bass as other Hawaiian players have, which is to say like just another guitar, the huge instrument laying sideways across his lap.
POSTSCRIPT: Though I’ve tried to keep this journal — blog has an uncomfortably urological ring to it, don’t you think? — free of personal testimony save for that which reinforces the picaresque contours of my own reputation, I will make an exception for the moment. A bright spark in my life, Six Degrees Records publicist Louisa Spier, was recently married in Hawai’i. (Pamelo Mounk’a fans will note that her given name ends in an ‘a.’) As the Emily Post grace period for wedding gifts may have expired, I will dedicate this archival transcription to Louisa and her still-new husband, Rob, the latter a good catch, being both biker and hedonist.