This Ukulele Trio Means Jazz!
Ukulele music ordinarily brings visions of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands with a clear blue sky, swaying palm trees in a light breeze, and also swaying grass skirt-clad beautiful dancers. “Not that there is anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld might say. However, this trio of skilled jazz musicians have a different idea about the diminutive four-string musical instruments’ potential and use, and ably prove their point.
Jennifer Leitham is best known as a leading jazz bassist for over three decades, playing traditional stand-up acoustic bass, with unique creativity and left-hand style. She has been featured at many of the world’s most notable jazz festivals and venues. Leitham has been at the highest levels of jazz performance as an A-List acoustic bassist, performing and recording with other high caliber artists, including Mel Torme, Doc Severinson, Joe Pass, George Shearing, and Peggy Lee.
Jeff Linsky is a versatile jazz guitarist, recognized for improvisational freedom. Interestingly, he plays jazz with a classical guitar technique. Acoustic Guitar has written, “This astounding guitarist seems to have bridged entirely the troublesome gap between brain and fingers.” For some years, Linsky has seriously added ukulele to his repertoire, and included a successful tour of China playing ukulele duets with ukulele master Abe Lagrimas, Jr. “Versatile” is a word that also aptly describes Lagrimas, who, in addition to being an accomplished ukulele artist, is a jazz drummer and a vibraphonist.
For this performance, Abe and Jeff were both playing tenor ukuleles (slightly larger with greater body depth) and Jennifer played an instrument I’ve not seen before: a bass ukulele—an unusual instrument specially made by the Ohana Ukulele Company. The bass appeared to be about half the size of a flat-top acoustic guitar. All three of the ukuleles were built as acoustic instruments, but were amplified, and all were played finger-style, without picks or plectrums of any kind.
Playing at The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, California, the trio kept their playing fresh. They performed without prepared and repeatable arrangements, and improvised on every tune as the three players rotated through them. Their surprise and delight at what they created was infectious. Each number was an original jazz creation, never to be exactly repeated again.
Leitham’s strong, continuous bass lines weaved through each tune, setting a driving foundation, holding the trio together without overpowering. Tunes included “Undecided,” “Imagination,” “Tico Tico,” and my favorite of this concert, “Bye Bye Blues,” which came together exceptionally well. Linsky played to “keep the pretty in” as he improvised. Lagrimas was the tenor ukulele virtuoso with the faster works and flashy runs. His right hand was almost a blur at times, yet never at a loss to be musically articulate. He is also out there spreading the word on ukulele jazz and versatility with national and international concerts, teaching, and the creation of instruction manuals.
This was an eye-opening experience, demonstrating that jazz is within the musician, and can be expressed many ways and through many unexpected musical instruments. There is increasing interest in ukulele and its capabilities, with many examples available to see and hear on YouTube. Try turning your head and don’t look at the ukulele as it is being played. Just listen, and you might be surprised.