Interview: Al Pascua talks Music Magic and the 2014 Reunion Show

I had the opportunity to interview Al Pascua of Hawaii’s jazz-fusion band Music Magic. We go back to the beginnings of his career—when he got his start in local military clubs in Hawaii at the age of 15.

On April 4th and 5th, 2014, legendary Hawaii female vocalist Pauline Wilson of Seawind will be joined by local jazz-fusion group Music Magic for two nights of solid live music, benefitting Special Olympics Hawaii. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see both acts on the same stage, a first-ever collaboration that probably won’t happen again—so don’t miss it! (You can get your tickets at islandjazznights.com)

I had the opportunity to interview Music Magic’s pianist and bandleader, Al Pascua, who has been busy preparing for this event for the past few months. Al resides in Los Angeles, having moved there in 1984 to continue pursuing his career in music. We go back to the beginnings of his career—when he got his start in local military clubs at the age of 15.

Thanks to Fred Li for arranging the interview. Be sure to buy your tickets before all the best seats are taken!

Music Magic with Chick Corea. L-R: Peter Factora (drums), Al Pascua, Chick Corea, Jay Molina (bass), Fred Schreuders (guitar)

Music Magic with Chick Corea. L-R: Peter Factora (drums), Al Pascua, Chick Corea, Jay Molina (bass), Fred Schreuders (guitar)

The basics: your name, where you were born and raised and how you got into music. 

My full name is Al Raymond Pascua, but I’d rather go by Al. If you call me Raymond, then you’re someone from my family and I will tend to run away, either I owe them money or they looking for money [laughs]. I got my start in Hawaii—a lot of it I think you know already, don’t you?

—Yeah, you were in a military family so you hopped around growing up?

Yeah, I’m a military brat and I got my start playing in military clubs in Hawaii at the age of 15. Some of the first clubs I played at was at Pearl Harbor, I played at almost all the military clubs you can think of on the island.

Al Pascua headshot

What kind of music were you doing?

Back then was soul music, “Mustang Sally” to “Midnight Hour”, “Soul Man”. Way way back then… What was hip during the Motown era. And I used to play even the rock stuff: Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears…

…15 years old, was this the late 1960s? 

I graduated from high school in ’71, so the late 60s. Uh oh, I’m showing my age! [laughs] By the time I graduated high school and went to college I started getting interested in jazz. That when I really started putting jazz trios together and going out and playing songs from Ramsey Lewis to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock.

Was that music popular in the islands at the time? 

Oh, yeah! Well, it was popular to me cause I was really diggin’ it. I don’t think back then they had a jazz radio station at all. I don’t remember one at all. When Music Magic was alive, that’s when I think jazz was starting to gain popularity. They had that guy, Kit Beret (?) —remember him?

No, I don’t.

That’s before your time [laughs]. Kit Beret (?) was the first radio personality that exposed or introduced, he had one of the first jazz stations, and I believe it was KORL. He would interview us [Music Magic] and all the other jazz musicians there in Honolulu. I think even when Seawind was there—that’s when it was coming alive. The mid-70s was real strong: that’s when all the top jazz groups in Hawaii were playing.

What was that time like? Many of those groups created such excellent music. 

I love the 70s because of the fact that there were bands. There were full-on bands playing in the clubs. Most of these were import bands from the mainland, too, so there were some great groups in the clubs! And they weren’t small bands, they were horn bands, and if you remember back then in the 70s—or you don’t—Chicago was huge, Blood Sweat & Tears was huge, Cold Blood was huge, Tower of Power. Those are the kinds of bands that were playing at the time in Hawaii.

So there wasn’t this restriction on, “OK we’re only gonna pay this much,” and you as an artist gotta go, “Oh, well we gotta play as a duo or a single to make any kind of money”. They were bringing in whole bands. A lot of the clubs like Infinity would bring in top acts from the mainland, horn bands, big bands: nine pieces.

Al Pascua (far left) and friends.

Al Pascua (far left) and friends. The two guys on the far right are David Rorick and John Rapoza.

What was any given night like? You could hop club to club and watch groups like that.

Oh, yeah. I was busy working myself. The nice thing about Hawaii was that the clubs don’t close till 4am. I don’t if it’s still like that now, but I remember getting off work and you can go to an after hours club, and all the musicians would meet there and just jam.

That’s the fun part—I’ve been up in Los Angeles since 1984 and never had that kind of experience up here.

That’s incredible. 

I mean, you have the top musicians in the world here in LA, and there’s no place that the musicians come to hang out or go to meet each other after their gigs. On top of that, there’s hardly any gigs anymore here. But a lot of musicians are studio musicians, so they go and work in the daytime, they never go out, they’re not into the clubs and stuff like that. I’ve never experienced that up here as I did in Hawaii. That’s why it was so cool to be there.

Would you say that that was critical to Hawaii’s music scene at the time?

Yeah, it’s very helpful to see other players that you normally couldn’t watch because you’re working yourself. But then you hear of other cats, other players, and you meet them at the [after hours] club and see them play. You just admire each other, you’re not in a comparative mode because everybody’s into the same scene, in the same room.

What did that do for you personally and professionally? 

You mean?

I mean, meeting up with all of these like-minded musicians after you’ve all finished working and you still want to keep going. 

What it is is, it keep you inspired to keep going. You get fresh ideas because you see other players play—that’s how you get inspired, by watching other players, especially when you watch somebody who’s a real top notch musician. You just sit there and listen, and you go “Wow, how did he do that? Lemme go pick his brain” and then you walk up to him and start picking his brain! Introduce myself to him or her and then exchange ideas.

It’s very critical. Waikiki was jammin’ at that time. Here I had a band when Seawind was there. You had Cecilio & Kapono playing, and you had Seawind playing in the club, and you had my band—it used to be called Quiet Fire before I had Music Magic—and we’d be playing the clubs. Can you picture that? All these bands in Waikiki in different clubs, you could go walking in and see this caliber of musicians.

And then when we started up Music Magic at the Spindrifter [in Kahala], the guys from Seawind used to come and sit in with us. Like Jerry Hey on horns, or Ken Wild on the bass. There was a couple times I sat in with them at Nick’s Fish Market. We’d sit in before our own gigs. Now I go back to Hawaii and I don’t see that. I don’t know, do you see that?

I don’t, no, not particularly. There’s tiny pockets here and there, but they’re nothing like what I’ve heard of.

Nothing like it was. The club we used to hang out in afterwards was Marrakesh, it used to be in Waikiki, a Moroccan food place. But after hours until 4 o’clock it would be open and all the musicians would be there. Even Don Ho would come in! I’d be sitting there across the table from him and he goes, “Al, you wanna play for my band?” And I go, “No.” [laughs] …”I admire you Don, but no I don’t want to be playing Tiny Bubbles all night.” [laughs] …But that was just because I had my own thing, I had Music Magic or whatever other band I had at the time.

Music Magic LP insert

Music Magic LP insert

How did Music Magic move into making original tunes? I know you were doing some covers when you first started at the Spindrifter.

Yeah, we were doing covers.

What types? 

Anything under the jazz circuit at the time, like Al Jarreau to Chick Corea. But we did pop tunes too, and that’s what I think made Music Magic successful is that we didn’t just play jazz, we incorporated was was “in” then, like Earth Wind & Fire, they were huge back then.

The nice part about it is you got a guy like [bassist] Jay Molina who can sing like Philip Bailey—one of my requirements for if you wanted to join the band was you have to be able to sing. You just can’t sit up there and play. Being the leader of the band along with Jay, that was one of the requirements because we were doing vocal tunes.

So that’s the formula I used when I created the band: I really didn’t want to play Top 40, I really didn’t want to do it—but, to keep the people interested in us, we had to incorporate both. I didn’t want to sell out either, I didn’t want to do tunes that I hated. I brag about it to this day: when I hear KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty”, I’m proud to say that none of the bands I ever played in ever did that song. [laughs] I absolutely hated it! But we played other stuff that was popular, like Earth Wind & Fire, and that got us noticed.

So did that lead into writing originals? Or had you always been writing your own tunes? 

I was writing originals, but it really didn’t get into the writing stages [with Music Magic] until I got together with the current lineup: Jay Molina, Fred Schreuders, Darryl Blouin. That’s when we realized the only way to get out playing cover tunes is to put out originals.

Back then, it was nothing like it is now, maybe we had 4-track recorders but I don’t even think we had that. Now I can sit down in my studio by myself and writing everything, a whole orchestra, with computers. Back in the Music Magic days when we had an idea we had to bring it to rehearsal. If I had an idea I would play it on the bass and show Jay my idea. I miss that. In a lot of ways I really, really miss that: bouncing ideas back and forth.

Because everybody brings something different to the table.

Exactly, I really miss that. Nobody does that anymore. Up here it’s like pulling teeth to get somebody to come into the studio with me. I’ll tell them, I’ll give you part royalties for this, or writer’s fee for the song, and it’s very difficult. And there are some top musicians here. You basically have to pay them or they need to get paid someway [to show them your idea].

I take it that you’re looking forward to this Music Magic reunion show?

I’m really looking forward to it.

These are the guys you had the most chemistry with.

Darryl, Fred, Jay and myself—I felt that we had the best chemistry. And those are the musicians on both the Music Magic albums. (*note: Peter Factora plays drums on the first Music Magic album, Darryl Blouin plays on the second.)

What are some of the memories you have of Seawind when they were still here?

One word: unbelievable. That band was everything a band should be. Horn section, great songs, Pauline singing. My wife and I were discussing that the other day: you can’t even think of another singer that came out of Hawaii that can blow her away. I mean, I think she’s the best singer that ever came out of Hawaii. Period. And that’s why I’m so excited we’re going to be backing her up. I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to work with her, I know Fred has, but I’ve never had an opportunity so it’s going to be great.

Oh man, I can’t wait! 

Yeah, me too! We’re going to be playing more of our Music Magic originals at the show, we’re updating the originals too. Fred and I have been writing new songs ourselves, and we even collaborated on a song. I’m even going to do a song with my son, Ray Alan. We’re going to do some popular tunes from the day too, like Earth Wind & Fire.

Sounds like a lot of surprises throughout the night. 

It’s gonna be awesome. Like I said: you can’t wait, I can’t wait.

Island Jazz Nights presents Pauline Wilson and Music Magic

Island Jazz Nights presents Pauline Wilson and Music Magic

Buy your tickets now:

Pauline Wilson & Music Magic
April 4 & 5, 2014
Pagoda Hotel International Ballroom
Tickets starting at $30

Read more about Music Magic on Aloha Got Soul:

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