Friday, July 8, 2016

Lyle Ritz and Ukulele Jazz

Sure, the ukulele was widely used in the 1920s by vocalists like Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Johnny Marvin to accompany their own singing, and some of them, like Edwards and Marvin, were very proficient on the little instrument. Yet it was Lyle Ritz that brought the ukulele into modern jazz in the 1950s, in particular on How About Uke?, a Verve album recorded over two different sessions in September 1957. Cleveland-born Ritz began playing the ukulele while in college in California, but despite cutting two albums on that instrument in the '50s, he actually garnered a strong reputation as a session musician in the '60s and '70s, appearing on bass on countless pop records with the likes of the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and Herb Alpert, to name but three examples. Being a member of the famous Wrecking Crew helped him pay his bills, but his first love was the ukulele. He never quit playing it, and over the years he built a steady following in Hawaii, which would lead to a sort of revival of interest in his ukulele music in the '80s and '90s, when he began appearing at festivals and making occasional records.

Lyle Ritz (right) with Ray Charles
It was guitarist Barney Kessel that brought Ritz to the attention of Verve Records, and How About Uke? was Ritz's first album for the label (the other one he cut, 1959's 50th State Jazz, is also worth looking up). The ukulele ace is accompanied here by Don Shelton on flute, Red Mitchell on bass, and Gene Estes on drums. Though Shelton takes several flute solos, the spotlight is on Ritz, and that's perhaps why the instrumentation is so sparse and the lineup features no brass instruments. Among the 13 tracks on the album there are only two Ritz originals ("Ritz Cracker" and "Sweet Joan"), the rest being tried-and-true standards like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Sunday," and "How About You?" (of course, the title of the LP makes reference to the latter). On the sprightly reading of "Solamente Una Vez (You Belong to My Heart)" and "Tangerine," the quartet goes into Latin territory, and they're equally effective on ballads such as "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Little Girl Blue." Whether Ritz is playing chords behind Shelton's flute or improvising on the melody himself, his technique is so polished that he proves the ukulele can be a viable instrument to play jazz. In fact, Ritz's playing is so compelling that it's easy to forget that we're listening to a ukulele and not a guitar. Unfortunately, neither one of his two Verve outings (both have been reissued on CD by the Fresh Sound label) made any impact outside of Hawaii at the time. Even so, almost 60 years after they were recorded, these sessions have definitely stood the test of time and should be approached as something more than mere novelty items.

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