Outstanding intro to their screwball good-time music
Playing Time – 32:01 -- Recorded all on one January, 2007 day and mixed/mastered the next, “Ukelele St.” is an outstanding introduction to the screwball good-time music of the New York Ukelele Ensemble. Uke Jackson’s opener, “Ukelele Beach Bum,” sets the stage for the wackiness to come as Uke exuberantly sings “I have no cares like billionaires / No greed to make me blue / I play ukulele and breathe fresh air / Yeah, that is all I do.” The nine uke players who appear on the CD include Heather Lev, Katie Down, Alan Drogin, Daria Grace, J. Walter Hawkes, Greg Gattuso, Gio Gaynor, Uncle Zac, and Uke Jackson. Peter Maness accompanies the ensemble on bass, he gets the spotlight with a tastefully rendered break in “Poor Papa” (a Billy Rose/Harry Woods collaboration from 1927). Hawkes adds some trombone into the mix of another old standard, “Limehouse Blues” and Jackson’s “Monkey Business.” A little loosely presented, the three Irish jigs that close the project also include Gio Gaynor on bones and Katie Down on flute.
The New York Ukulele Ensemble formed in 2006, and they demonstrate plenty of creativity and imagination. Uke Jackson provides most of the robust and eccentric lead singing, but one of the women in the ensemble sings “I Love a Ukelele.” The real charm of a slightly kinky group like this is simply their uniqueness. Whle a song like “Monkey Business” may border on being nonsensical, I can tell that these solid musicians take themselves seriously too. Heather Lev, for example, is an award-winning singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a couple of her own albums out. She’s written nearly whimsical, philosophical, inspiring, love, protest and political songs. The New York Ukelele Ensemble presents one of her songs – “Gigabytes of Pain” tells the emotional story of temp office worker who stares at a computer screen all day long with little human contact or interaction. Another Ensemble member, Katie Down, has been involved with theater, dance and film projects. Her ukulele trio, The Ukuladies, hosts a weekly uke event called “Uke Nights!!” at a Brooklyn barbecue restaurant. Daria Grace has played bass or uke and has sung with various New York City ensembles for about 15 years. Originally from Connecticut, Uncle Zac has played uke for over 40 years. So apparently there’s a wide age range among the players in the Ensemble, and their common love for the instrument has drawn them together to share tunes, trade licks, entertain audiences, and further explore the uke’s capabilities.
The group’s founder and impresario is Uke Jackson, a playwright and producer with many years of creative experiences and artistic endeavors. After the full moon rises, I’m certain he particularly enjoys singing his self-penned song, Vampire Luck. “Let me feel your cold cold kiss / Upon my mortal skin Sink your fangs deep, my love Let eternity begin.” It’s a cute and catchy sentiment about love. And for a peace song with a different kind of hook, “Universal Hat” humorously declares “If everyone wore the same style hat / Where would the enemy’s head be at?” While the ensemble’s licks aren’t the flashiest around, the messages on “Ukelele Street” are enticing and worthy of attentive listening. With a few more years under their collective belts, expect an even more cohesive sound from them. In the meantime, you might also want to check out the concerts and workshops at the New York Uke Fest in late April where free beer and ukulele door prizes are offered all weekend. Uke Jackson also hosts an on-line ukele discussion group at www.ukulelemojo.com, which he feels has the the planet's largest online collection of pin ups with ukes. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)