The man who helped make the ukulele more than a Hawaiian curiosity continues to show listeners what the four-stringed instrument can do on his latest album. Here, Ohta-san — the stage name of 72-year-old, Honolulu-born Herb Ohta — covers Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, in tribute to the late Brazilian bossa nova master who would have turned 80 this year.
Ohta-san’s arrangements of Jobim’s songs strip the music to its core melody and rhythmic passages. Yet the 15 tracks are not simple solo exercises; only on three tracks does Ohta-san play on a single instrument, the best being his six-string ukulele rendition of “Desafinado.” The other tracks have him playing a ukulele tuned to the standard high G accompanied with the six-string or a low-G tuned ukulele with additional guitar by Nando Suan, the layered sound keeping the songs from sounding bare and one-dimensional. On “Wave,” the ukulele melodies and syncopated guitar rhythms work well as the resonant quality of the Hawaiian instrument evokes a wavelike effect as tones overlap.
Ohta-san’s playing and sense prevents the music from becoming simply Hawaiian-inflected bossa nova. For Jobim fans, “Ukulele Bossa Nova” is a chance to hear the compositions given a worthy, fresh treatment.