BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Christopher Davis-Shannon and Jacques Pellarin’s new album Fifty/50 doesn’t contain any stacked tracks nor studio wizardry—just solid, sonically unadulterated performances of two instruments: Pellarin’s button accordion and Davis-Shannon’s May Singhi-Breen replica koa soprano ukulele crafted by much-lauded luthier Liam Kirby of England’s Wunderkammer Musical Instruments. OK, there are very subtle backgrounds of birds on one track and night crickets on another, but that’s it.
Christopher Davis-Shannon and Jacques Pellarin, Fifty/50 (Tin Man Records)
Davis-Shannon’s profile in the ukulele world has been rising steadily over the last several years through his online video lessons, workshop appearances, and print magazine tutorials (in these very pages). Pellarin, who lives in the town of Avallon, in the central-east Burgundy region of France, is a highly respected accordionist and composer who has become known for his work on film soundtracks, as well as playing jazz, Latin, 20th century standards, and more.
The two have known each other since 2015 (when they met on another artist’s recording session) and in 2019 they “started kicking around duets for ukulele and accordion when Jacques was in the States touring and recording,” Davis-Shannon tells us. “We really liked the way the two instruments worked together. We sent demos of ideas back and forth for the next year and then the pandemic found us both sitting at home writing. We didn’t want to record remotely so in November of 2021 I flew over to France to record.” However, because of time constraints and the sonic limitations of cutting the two instruments live, Davis-Shannon eventually headed back to Philadelphia and reworked and rerecorded his ukulele parts around the “the proverbial orchestra that is the accordion,” he says.
Whatever the logistics involved, the finished product is a wonderful, highly entertaining collection of original tunes, four by Davis-Shannon and three by Pellarin. All are instrumentals, save for Davis-Shannon’s folky “Willow,” which features a lovely lead vocal by Charlotte Pelgen of Germany’s Bad Mouse Orchestra.
A few tunes are clearly stylistic throwbacks to the first half of the last century: Davis-Shannon’s “Jaque Mate” is an old-fashioned waltz that includes a nice passage of fingerpicked melody, while Pellarin’s “Lady Josephine” (inspired by the great American jazz singer Josephine Baker, who became a superstar in Paris in the 1920s) and ”Summer 1925” jump with Jazz Age life; Charleston, anyone?
Pellarin’s “Magic Campfire” is a nod to reggae, the uke chopping that beat with vigor toward the end; and Davis-Shannon says his closing “Media Luna” was influenced by the work of French composer Erik Satie—indeed, it does have some of Satie’s poignant, beautifully melancholic flavor to it.
The duo trade short solos throughout, and the combination of the ukulele and accordion turns out to be surprisingly natural-sounding. But really hearing the contrast and occasional tension between them is part of the fun, too, aided by the cool decision to place Davis-Shannon’s crisp ukulele fingerpicking and strums in the center of the stereo field, sandwiched by Pellarin’s more bassy, more sustained left-hand parts on one side, and the brighter, more melodic right-hand parts on the other. It sounds great on headphones!
The good news, too, is there will be more of this magical union coming our way—plans are afoot for Davis-Shannon and Pellarin to record more together in the summer of 2023.