Herb Ohta Jr.,
Ukulele Dream
(Roy Sakuma, 2001)

The ukulele is only a small instrument, but in the right hands, it has a big sound. Herb Ohta Jr. has the right hands. Ukulele Dream is a collection of 13 instrumental tracks, some standards, some written by Ohta, showing different facets of the ukulele.

Opening with a hula that swings and sways in the breeze, the mood is set. This is a fun album, but also a substantial one. Ohta picks and strums along with guitar, bass and second ukulele accompaniment on a duet with Greg Sardinha's steel guitar. Pizzicato or allowing the notes to linger, he finds unexpected progressions as he explores the melody.

A gentle evening twilight is conjured on "Kaanapali Sunset," his own composition. Guitar and bass provide a perfect setting for Ohta, whose sparing use of harmonics demonstrate his deep understanding of the capabilities of the instrument and the music. He has no need for tricks or sleight of hand in putting over the soul of Hawaii. The tune is allowed to breathe as it laps forward and retreats, like gentle waves reaching the shoreline.

"Tropical Baby" presents a slightly different but equally effective interpretation of swing as ukulele and steel (instead of a Hot Club fiddle and guitar) exchange ideas. The album moves on to a near new age sound, then to another track that wouldn't be out of place on a David Grisman recording....

But as each track moves into a new realm, the continuity is maintained by Ohta's mastery of his instrument and the genre. It's a pleasure to listen to the way in which he presents the ukulele while discovering the different directions in which the tunes can travel. There is a constant feeling of spontaneity and never the sensation that he's played these tunes over and over. His involvement is catching, too, as you hear new elements each time you play the album -- there are always new depths to enjoy.

Eight musicians are listed on the sleeve notes. (As I read the track details and listen to the first couple of tracks, I'm not sure how reliable they are.) The main accompaniment tends to be guitar (Dwight Kanae and Ernie Cruz Jr.) and bass (Ocean Kaowili and Kimo Bell), while Sardinha adds excellent steel guitar, Michael Guerrero keyboards, Jon Porlas percussion and Bryan Tolentino a delightfully sympathetic ukulele.

It is difficult to pick high points -- almost every track could qualify, such is the quality of the album. If I have complaints, then they concern two tracks. "White Sandy Beach" has a beautiful melody, laidback and cool, conjuring pictures of the white sandy beach. Ohta should have had the confidence to realize his music already contains waves -- the unnecessary sounds tend to draw your attention away. I also wonder why "If We Hold On Together" was included. It sounds like film music, out of character with the rest of the album.

But these are small complaints when listening to the whole album. Herb Ohta Jr. is a versatile, accomplished player who knows how to select superb music as well as excellent musicians to accompany him. He's also done an excellent job as co-producer with engineer Charley Lukela in warmly creating this Ukulele Dream.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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