On her latest album, Honolulu native Taimane Gardner continues to expand upon the kinetic ukulele style she developed over the years. Over seven original tracks titled after the classical elements, “Water,” “Fire,” “Air,” “Earth,” and “Ether,” plus “Hades” and “Atlantis,” Taimane and her group, which includes guitarist Jasmine “Jazzy Jaz” Skurtu and percussionist Jonathan Heraux, explore musical ideas of the natural and supernatural worlds.
Elemental draws as much inspiration from the fiery fretwork of a flamenco guitarist from Spain and otherworldly ambient music as it does from the flashy virtuosic style of ukulele-playing popular in Hawaii. “Water” is a dynamic solo piece that flows from quiet, meditative fingerpicked arpeggios, to quickly strummed passages as she dashes around the fretboard, before returning to the arpeggiated passage. “Hades” features a heavy, flamenco-like progression—and a cool passage played by Taimane’s left-hand while Heraux hammers the strings with utensils.
Though she’s long been a user and proponent of a 5-string ukulele that uses low- and high-G strings, she mixes up her sound a bit on this album. While searching for a deeper, warmer tone, she recorded most of the album using a custom `Oi baritone made with a mango body by Santa Barbara luthier Peter Gillies. (Fans of her trademark Kamaka 5-string won’t be disappointed, it appears on Elemental’s blazing “Fire.”)
Like the elements that inspired this album’s compositions, Elemental’s building blocks veer from moments of introspection, to searching for universal truths, instrumental virtuosity, and a dose of rambunctious fun. —Greg Olwell
Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel
Honeysuckle Rose [cheemaisel.com]
There are hardly two names more familiar to the readers of this magazine than Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee. From online classes, to cruises, to regular (and frequent) appearances at ukulele festivals, the couple seems to be spreading ukulele love everywhere. While they may be two of the busiest, most highly visible ukulele players on the scene, the skillful playing on their first album since 2015’s Scene 1 Take 1 shows that both also spend a lot of time honing their chops in the woodshed in a quest to become deeper musicians.
This time around, the duo, accompanied here by bassist Milo Fultz and drummer Merlin Showalter, tackle ten much-loved jazz standards. With her background as the jazzier one, Sarah takes the lead on Honeysuckle Rose, handling vocals on each track and sharing solos with Craig. She kills it on “How High the Moon,” with her silky vocals and George Benson-style solo that doubles her ukulele part with scat singing.
If there is any criticism to levy here, it’s that the music left my ears (and feet) wishing for some more varied song tempos. With the exception of the slow-burning “My One and Only Love,” the song tempos are nearly the same throughout the album. Still, with hip chord voicings, sweet swinging grooves, warm vocals, and able solos, the quartet delivers a truly fine jazz album that’s not only a good ukulele album, it’s just good music. With Honeysuckle Rose, the powerhouse duo delivers an album that should appeal both to their many fans from the ukulele sphere and also to a wider audience of music fans. Will somebody give them a jazz-fest gig, already? —GO
Ragtime Fingerstyle Ukulele: 15 Classic Rags Arranged For Solo Ukulele
By Fred Sokolow [Hal Leonard]
Having written over 150 titles for mega music publishers Hal Leonard and Mel Bay, Fred Sokolow may be the most prolific writer of music instruction books for stringed instruments. I first ran across Fred’s work when I was studying the 5-string banjo in the 1990s and I purchased his book Ragtime, Blues & Jazz for Banjo. I loved his accurate arrangements of the ragtime tunes, so I was first in line when I saw Fred recently published a book of classic ragtime for ukulele. And I was not disappointed.
The new book features ragtime standards including Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Easy Winners,” as well as lesser-known works like “Pine Apple Rag” and “Peacherine Rag.” The book also contains wonderful tunes from other famous ragtime composers including Abe Holzmann’s “Smoky Mokes,” Max Hoffman’s “Yankee Land,” Joseph Lamb’s “Reindeer Rag Two-Step,” and a personal favorite, Zez Confrey’s “Stumbling.”
The thing I like most about Fred’s arrangements, other than their adherence to the original melodies, is that the majority of the tablature centers on the lower frets. There are not many knuckle-busters in this collection; instead, they are very playable arrangements. I also like the history and insight Sokolow gives about the genre, plus, with artwork of the original sheet music covers, it’s a lovely book to leaf through.
Fred notes in the Learning Tips section that the best way to approach learning this music is to “Listen to a rag several times before attempting to play it. Having the tune in your head is half the battle.” To that end, you can download audio tracks of the entire collection from the publisher’s website. 96 pages, $19.99, halleonard.com —Jim D’Ville
Black Orchid String Band
Little known outside of world-music circles, the Melanesian people of western Papua New Guinea developed a distinctive style combining string-band music and choral vocals. A group of West Papuan freedom fighters formed Black Orchid in Melbourne, Australia, to sing songs of longing and independence for their homeland. The resulting nine-track album has a beautiful and intoxicating Pacific Island vibe that leans heavily on a unique, swinging ukulele strum. —GO
Fly Myself to You [kamuke.com]
The latest EP from Australian songwriter, singing ukulele player, and publisher of Kamuke magazine Cameron Murray collects five charming, heartfelt originals, including the barnstorming “Supersonic Rainbow,” plus a banjo-uke-powered cover medley of “Ain’t She Sweet/Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” —GO