The ukulele doesn’t always get the best of press. Some look at the diminutive instrument quizzically and wonder why the artist in question preferred a “shrunken guitar” to the real thing, while others may simply not know what to make of it.
If you pertain to any of the above uninformed groups, you can be delightfully disabused a week or so from now by going along to one of the half dozen shows to be performed here, across the country, by Taimane Gardner - her first name is pronounced Tai-man-eh, meaning “diamond” in her mother’s Samoan language - February 2-9.
That you can do plenty with a ukulele - certainly more than the mass market oriented efforts of the likes of Elvis Presley in his 1961 movie Blue Hawaii, and American falsetto-voiced performer Tiny Tim - will become indisputably apparent when Gardner takes the stage here, along with longtime sidekick percussionist Jonathan Heraux, and Israeli guitarist Noa Dresner.
Although still just shy of 30, Gardner, who goes by her given name as her professional moniker, has been exploring the possibilities of her instrument for close to a quarter of a century.
She says it was, basically, just a matter of going with the local roots flow. “It’s very normal, growing up in Hawaii, to have a ukulele in a house – any house. We are sort of raised with that, also at elementary school where we played it.” It certainly grabbed Gardner’s childhood attention. “I started playing it when I was 5, and I haven’t stopped since!” she laughs.
Jazz musicians often talk about the benefits of getting out of the classroom and out into what they consider the real learning environment, what they call “the university of the street.”
Gardner bought into that from the word go. She also received a generous helping hand from an established star of the day. “Don Ho gave me my very first job as a musician, when I was 13,” she recalls. Ho was the most famous Hawaiian ukulele player who had a hit, with pop number “Tiny Bubbles,” in 1966. “I was playing on the streets of Waikiki, kind of busking,” Gardner continues. “I’d meet all sorts of musicians, and we’d play together every Friday.”
That was mostly free-flowing jam session encounters, but Ho, who died in 2007, gave the teenager her first taste of the real McCoy. “One of the people who saw me playing in the street told Uncle Don about me. So I went to play for Uncle Don. He liked what I did and he invited me to play in his show in Waikiki.” Gardner was up and running.
Happily, her father was always at the ready to make sure his young daughter was focused, and got to shows and classes on time. “My dad was very prevalent when I was growing up, in my music. He made sure I was safe on the streets and he gave me that work ethic which is just as important as talent.
Mr. Gardner also introduced his daughter to some of the sounds he grew up with himself, which continue to inform her artistic development to this day. “I love classical music, and my dad introduced me to classic rock in my teen years,” she notes. “So I listened to Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Pink Floyd.”
Gardner says that her instrument of choice could handle all of that, and much more. “I played pretty much what I enjoyed listening to. And the ukulele is such an underestimated instrument. It has a lot to offer and I try to show that.”
She spells that out, in no uncertain terms, for example, in her genre-encompassing Led Zeppelin Meets Beethoven number, which wends a meandering path through “Stairway to Heaven,” “Fur Elise” and rich flamenco sensibilities, to mention but a few disciplinary avenues of expression.
ALL THOSE strands flowed through Gardner’s early offerings, but there was an important epiphanous moment when she was an 18-year-old music student in college student. “I started only playing covers, and then I had a turning point in college,” she explains. “I went to this jazz club and was inspired by the musicians there who only play originals. That was a turning point for me, and I started creating my own music.”
Over the years Gardner has put out 5 albums which also feed off more spiritual climes, such as her Elemental record which features such tracks as “Water”, “Fire” and Mother (Earth)”.
The ukulele virtuoso also brings a dynamic physical presence to her live work, and explores much of the stage as she plays, stepping energetically and fetchingly hither and thither, and exuding an abundance of joie de vivre. “I am excited about coming to Israel, to share my music with people there,” she says. “Israel is such a spiritual place.”
Gardner also tends to endear herself to audiences, wherever she goes across the globe, by slotting some local sentiments into her shows. She’ll be doing that here, too. “I want the actual song to be a surprise, but I can say I’ll be doing something by Arik Einstein,” was all she would disclose.
She says it is also very much a two-way street. “I try to pick up on the music of the different places I visit, too. I hear you have pretty amazing musicians in Israel, and I am looking forward to, maybe, jamming with some of them.”
Should be interesting to see whether any of the vibes she takes on during her week here eventually find their way into her work, further down the line. Stay tuned.For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001, www.hotjazz.co.il and firstname.lastname@example.org
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