Utah Live Bands’ keyboard player Jordan Kamalu finds success wherever he can.
Last summer the Groove Merchants played a wedding reception in the Midwest. During a break in the set, the bride and groom came up and asked the band to play the Indiana University fight song. The band hadn’t ever heard the song, let alone prepared it. But band leader Michael Tobian turned to their keyboard player, Jordan Kamalu, to save the day. “Jordan has incredible ears and can play perfectly any song by ear, as long as he has heard the song before,” recalls Tobian. “I asked Jordan to go outside and pull up the fight song on his phone and learn it. He ran outside and listened to it a few times, memorized it, and came back inside.” Groove Merchants took their cues from Kamalu, and as Tobian remembers it, “We were able to play the Indiana University fight song as the very next song—flawlessly.”
Jordan Kamalu isn’t just a party band prodigy, though. On his Facebook page, Kamalu describes himself as a songwriter, producer, and film scorer. For a lot of other people, that might just be hype. But Kamalu, at age 25, has earned bragging rights. He has already won a Student Emmy, has had a musical produced off-Broadway, and is producing his own up-and-coming singer. And, of course, he’s playing keyboards for the Groove Merchants and Drive Country Band.
At the core of his musical accomplishments, Kamalu is a talented composer. “As early as I can remember playing music, I can remember writing it. When I was growing up it was something I did as a matter of fact, without necessarily trying to get better,” he says. But when he joined the high school jazz band, Kamalu was asked to write and arrange music for the group. “I was getting a lot of positive feedback from peers and mentors on my writing.” So he entered and won a national music composition competition in his senior year before heading off to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Berklee has trained some talented artists, but tuition is expensive. “I went to Berklee knowing that I’d only have money for one year,” Kamalu explains, reflecting a wonderfully pragmatic aspect to his dream-big personality. “I learned a whole lot from that year in Boston, musical and nonmusical things, and I think that in the long run I’ll be better off for it.” While at Berklee he expanded his focus to include more mainstream music, such as pop. In doing so he discovered the many opportunities to earn a living making music in other career paths such as film scoring and musical theater.
The transfer to BYU opened doors for Kamalu to try out his new skills and interests. When George Nelson, director of the Playwriting Program at BYU, approached Kamalu about collaborating on a musical, Kamalu seized the opportunity. Single Wide went on to win the Blanche and Irving Laurie Musical Theater Award at the The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in 2015 and then was selected to be produced off-Broadway as part of the 2015 New York Musical Festival.
The production for the NYMF featured professional actors and an acclaimed Broadway director. But that wasn’t intimidating to Kamalu, who worked as a writer and orchestrator for the fledgling musical. “For a new production, the writers can be very involved during the rehearsal process because things are constantly changing,” he says. “We changed lyrics, added songs, cut songs, added orchestrations, changed keys, all the way up until close to opening night.” While the production demands were a challenge, Kamalu looks back on the experience as a blessing. “I think that part of the joy for any writer is seeing a work brought to life by talented performers. I get my satisfaction from seeing other people entertained by my music, regardless of who gets the applause at the end of the day.”
Kamalu followed up that success by winning the opportunity to score the BYU animation department’s short film, “Papá.” His original score excited a lot of buzz around the campus, from both the animation and music departments, and so Kamalu wasn’t actually too surprised when he found out that he’d won a student Emmy for his work.
After graduation from BYU, Kamalu shifted gears again, this time to the production side of the mixing console. He’s currently producing his own artist, Johanna Jones, and enjoying the challenge. “Producing a song is a lot like directing a movie,” he says. “Choices about the arrangement, recording techniques, styles and sounds, groove, session players to hire, how to sing the melody, what harmonies to add, these are all choices that a producer will generally make together with the artist. Johanna is the first artist who I’ve worked extensively with, and we are still in the middle of writing and producing her first album in the hopes of scoring an appointment with some Record Label A&R reps. I have no doubt that with her talent and dedication, she will be a very successful artist.”
With so many irons in the fire, Kamalu still makes time to perform with the Groove Merchants and Drive. Kamalu came to the attention of Utah Live Bands when Mike Tobian was looking for a substitute keyboard player. “Jordan was referred to me,” Tobian explains. “I knew at the time he wasn’t too involved with the party band scene, so I was a little nervous about using him. I sent him a list of the songs, and he told me he knew every song. Sort of not believing him, I called him and went over all the songs and he was polite but basically kept assuring me that he knew them all.” Tobian was a little incredulous—not many musicians have the kind of ear that it takes to pick up music that easily. But time and again, Kamalu has proven to be a talented asset. “He adds a tremendous amount of flexibility to what we can do. If at an event, we are asked to play a song we don’t know, if it is a song Jordan has heard before, we can usually let him take the lead on it and play along by ear and the clients are thrilled,” says Tobian.
Kamalu credits the gig work he does with making his creative life possible. “It’s precisely because I perform so much with the Utah Live Bands that I have the time to write and produce,” he says. “Many musicians I know have day jobs. They work Monday through Friday with the occasional gig here and there. If I had a day job, I don’t think I’d have the necessary time or energy to devote to writing.”
Despite all of Kamalu’s success, Tobian credits him as “always gracious and thankful for the work and easy to get along with…. He’s a great fit for our bands at Utah Live Bands.”
Jordan Kamalu is the keyboard player for the Groove Merchants and Drive Country Band. He can also be found playing in any other Utah Live Band that can get him. Click here for more information on scheduling Jordan Kamalu for your next event.