3 New Uke CDs Reviewed
The Greatest Day [JS Records]
Given how Jake’s groundbreaking, off-the-cuff recording of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in New York’s Central Park brought him wide acclaim; it’s surprising that it took so long for him to release a record like The Greatest Day. Here, he embraces his inner classic-rock fan on his latest album, creating a work that feels more like the product of a cohesive group than a showcase for a soloist.
His last album, Nashville Sessions, was concocted from jams with a drummer and bass player in a studio, giving the album a looser, more improvised feel and a distinctly harder, more dissonant edge than we are used to hearing from Jake’s polished, melodic side. It must have been a liberating process, because he returned to the same studio with the same band for this album. However, The Greatest Day is more of group working together, playing several songs honed on tour with bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston, filled out here with drummer Evan Hutchings for the basic quartet, and expanded with layered horns, strings, keyboards, and vocal harmonies. They play as a unit, which means Jake is less out-front than you may be used to, but they make music that may be more likely to call you back for repeated listening.
The album opens with “Time of the Season” and its sticks close to the Zombies’ original version—until the slide guitar solo, followed by Jake’s distorted and harmonized solo. The inspiring title track, written by Jake, moves along at a quick tempo and echoes some of U2’s biggest hits. The album highlight might be one of the songs that the group developed on the road, the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Here Jake’s uke hops and skips on top of the band’s insistent groove as he trades solos with Nashville legend Jerry Douglas, who adds his phenomenal dobro playing to this and two other tunes. The album ends with a ukulele instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” emotively played here by Jake over a wash of ambient keyboards and guitar. —Greg Olwell
Herb Ohta Jr.
‘Ukulele Hula [neosproductions.com]
Following closely in the footsteps of his two ‘Ukulele Friends discs with Bryan Tolentino (the first won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Ukulele Album in 2016), Herb Ohta Jr. returns with another pleasing collection of popular traditional and modern Hawaiian tunes spanning many decades—but this time he goes it alone (well, almost). For this all-instrumental outing, he supplies all the ukulele parts himself, double-tracking rhythm lines along with his beautiful and at times quite complex fingerpicked melody leads. Rodney Bejer supplies (very) subtle bass to the proceedings, and percussionist Salaam Tillman livens up a couple of tracks, as well. Ohta used a single Kamaka 100th Anniversary Tenor Deluxe for his parts.
Many of the tunes will be familiar to Hawaiian music listeners. All of the songs have been previously recorded by a virtual who’s who of 20th century Hawaiian musicians; most of them by multiple artists, including Ray Kane, Genoa Keawe, Sonny Chillingworth, the Brothers Cazimero, the Makaha Sons, Keali’i Reichel, the list goes on. This probably isn’t going to make you forget Sonny Chillingworth’s thoroughly haunting mid-’60s version of “Makee ‘Ailana” or Iz loping through the “Green Rose Hula,” but Ohta Junior’s ‘Ukulele Hula is a wonderful selection of tunes, and with Ohta firmly in command, you know they’re going to be at once tuneful and virtuosic. The plucked melodies are bright and assertive, but some of the most interesting uke work goes on underneath those main lines—soft, fluttering right-hand undercurrents and sweet harmony moments that attest to his incredible skill as a player. The overall vibe is both fond and fun. It no doubt taps into nostalgia for some, but it still feels remarkably fresh and new. And kudos to engineer Bob St. John for the outstanding sonics!
As an editor at Ukulele for the past few years, I’d read articles that mentioned Jim Beloff’s whimsically titled concerto for ukulele and orchestra, Uke Can’t Be Serious. With a title like that—even with Jim’s sterling reputation—I figured it can’t be serious, but this release proves me wrong! It comes nearly a decade after the piece, which features exquisite orchestrations by Jason Nyberg, was debuted by the Wallingford Symphony Orchestra in Jim’s home state of Connecticut; since the November 1999 premiere, Beloff has performed it around two-dozen times, including such far-flung locales as Michigan and California.
The piece really packs a lot into a little over nine and a half minutes! I’m not always a fan of lush orchestrations, but Nyberg’s amazingly natural sounding “synth orchestra” arrangements are nicely variegated, from gentle romantic swells of strings and woodwinds to blaring punctuation with horns and percussion—I thought of Leonard Bernstein more than once. There are also charming little interludes where Beloff’s uke is unaccompanied, and (spoiler alert) a full song-within-the-piece beginning at about the 5:20 mark: Suddenly Beloff’s strumming picks up speed and morphs into a full-blown 1930s Cole Porter-style number, sung by Beloff, and clearly a love letter to the instrument—“You can’t be classical, it’s not your thing/ You’re such a rascal, a summer fling/ Refined and dignified, the very model of restraint/ These are all the things you ain’t.” It’s wonderfully whimsical!
The album’s second extended concerto is called The Dove Tale, and this one—again beautifully orchestrated by Nyberg—clearly has more serious aspirations—Beloff says the more than 11-minute work was inspired by the sounds of mourning doves at a bird sanctuary near his house. As such, it is more of an impressionist piece, with many different moods, and orchestral passages that bring Aaron Copland to mind, and also ones that sound cinematic in scope. Beloff’s uke serves the music well as it courses through the colorful orchestral landscape, which was expertly recorded and mixed by engineer Tom Zink. This piece was premiered in November 2017 and, even more than its predecessor, shows how the uke can be artfully employed in a classical setting.
The final piece on the brief (25-minute) but satisfyingly music-packed CD is a shorter, more conventional, folkish Beloff song from 1994 called “Charles Ives,” which celebrates the fact that the famous American composer (also from Connecticut) co-owned a successful insurance company at the same time he was writing his groundbreaking music. Beloff can relate: “This is a time for going after dreams, after we’ve done our 9 to 5s/ When I get thinking that I can’t do it all, then I remember Charles Ives.” The tasteful orchestral arrangement on this one is by Rick Cunha. —BJ