BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
These 2 new ukulele-focused albums span the ages of the instrument, stylistically and compositionally. Steve Rose’s Ukulele Shorts covers many songs written before 1927 with his experienced hand, while recent Berklee grad Charissa Hoffman’s debut Different View stirs emotions with modern originals.
Steve Rose Shines on Album of Old Covers and Cool Originals
Steve Rose, Ukulele Shorts
The first signs that this album by L.A.-based ukulele player and teacher Steve Rose isn’t going to be an overly serious affair are the title and matching cover photo. Eight of the 17 (short) songs date from 1910 to 1926, so some vo-de-o-do corniness might be expected—and a bit is delivered. Add some comical, but tastefully employed vibraslap and wood block percussive accents and a Dr. Demento–worthy original tune that sings the praises of “Baba Ghanouche,” and you have a playful romp through vaudeville, right?
Sort of. But for every “Toot-Toot-Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!)” or “Sheik of Araby” or “Chinatown, My Chinatown” there are period tunes played straight, such as “Blue Skies,” “Miss the Mississippi and You,” and instrumental takes on “Limehouse Blues” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Likewise, Rose’s “new” songs mostly sound old, such as the waltz “She Went Over the Falls in a Barrel,” which feels like it’s fresh out of a music hall circa 1910; “Galaxy Rag”—Scott Joplin’s lost ukulele rag?; and the charming throwback “Next Stop, Willoughby.”
But let’s not get too distracted by the humor and nostalgia, because what really makes this album special is its ukuleleness. Rose, who for nearly two decades has guided students (and acted as a uke ensemble leader) at the famous McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, has crafted a truly amazing showcase for the instrument. Aided by engineer, co-producer, co-arranger, and keyboardist Wayne Peet, Rose artfully employs multiple, expertly layered ukulele parts on every song, sometimes three or more. When I asked him for the specifics of his arsenal, he said, “Happy to elaborate! Gee, where do I start? Kamaka tenor and Kamaka concert, Martin Iz commemorative tenor, 1950 Martin Style 3 soprano, Mya-Moe tenor resonator, National steel soprano resonator (often played with a slide bar), and a Kala U-bass. I usually played only two selected ukuleles of contrasting tone colors, notwithstanding the bass (although some tracks I played a Fender Jazz bass). These are my entire collection of ukes, each with a different sound. And I’m stopping there!”
The key word there is “colors,” because what really jumped out at me listening repeatedly to this beautifully recorded album on headphones was the tremendous variation in the “voices” of the ukuleles—the way a fingerpicked backing would suddenly give way to a slide line, and even the subtle but distinct differences between the tenor and soprano resonator ukes. I don’t recall hearing this much slide-uke work on an album before. Sometimes the parts are split left-center-right, and so skillful is the playing and mixing that you can zero-in on the conversation among them. And speaking of voices, I would be remiss if did not mention the gorgeous layering of Rose’s vocals. He possesses a lovely tenor voice that suits the range of material perfectly as a lead, but when stacked in harmonies adds a whole other dimension to the sound—sometimes sounding like a classic ’20s/’30s vocal group, at others more like the Beach Boys or one of Jeff Lynne’s productions.
So, what on the surface may look and sound like just another trip down memory lane is actually one of the most interesting and sophisticated uses of the ukulele I’ve heard.
Charissa Hoffman Bares Her Soul on Debut EP
Charissa Hoffman, different view
Charissa Hoffman has the distinction of being, as she told me last year, “one of the first two ukulele principals Berklee College of Music has ever accepted; between the two, I’m the youngest and first female. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of pushback—many people tell me the ukulele is not a serious or legitimate instrument and that I am wasting my time pursuing a degree in Ukulele Performance [she graduated from Berklee in May 2021]. However, I am passionate about the instrument and believe it is capable of great things. I love how accessible it is, and I also want to see it taken as far as it can go. I never want someone to be told, ‘You can’t play that on a ukulele!’ as I so often hear.”
Through the years, the singer-songwriter has performed solo and in a number of settings with other players, including the folk/early jazz duo Buttonwillow with fiddler Lucy Nelligan, but this five-song EP marks her recording debut as a solo artist, and it’s an intriguing and impressive start. different view is, well, different than most of the ukulele-based recordings that come my way. These songs are by and large wistful meditations on what Hoffman calls “a painful, drawn-out breakup,” as well as other losses in her life.
The ukulele is the foundation of every song, mostly fingerpicked in dreamy hypnotic patterns above which she sings in a soothing but expressive voice that reminds me a little of early Joni Mitchell. Which is not to pigeonhole her in any way; she definitely has her own voice and her own approach to lyric writing, which mixes poetic imagery—“Standing there by the window/Afternoon sun in your eyes/ Shades of gold, no clouds in sight”—with confessional introspection that feels like eavesdropping on her thoughts—“I am tethered, always working, always worried/ I don’t want to weigh him down.” And though the crumbling relationship sits center stage, there are also flashes of Hoffman’s inner strength and even hopefulness, so it’s not entirely melancholic.
One tune, the stark “Compromise,” is just ukulele and breathy, on-the-mic voice, while the other four feature varied but spare instrumentation: cello and violin (Nelligan) on two; acoustic guitar, bass, tasteful backing vocals, and drums (mixed a bit loud for my taste) on the other two; standup bass on one. Throughout, Hoffman plays a warm-sounding Kala KA-SRT-CTG-CE, a tenor with a cedar top and rosewood back and sides.
The cumulative vibe is a sort of folk chamber music—intimate, revealing, and appealingly idiosyncratic. It will be very interesting to see where she goes from here and how the ukulele will continue to fit into and drive her unique musical vision. She tells me, “I’m planning to spend the winter working on writing my next project—a full-length album—and fingers crossed I’ll be back to performing soon.”