My friend Dan is learning to play the ukulele. His preferred instrument for the past several decades also has four strings, but is of a much different scope—the stand-up bass.
Dan and I have played together on a few occasions, generally at church events. (The next one is Dec. 1 at United Community Nursery School at the corner of Temple and Wall streets in downtown New Haven.) He plays soothing, steady lines on his bass and bash my uke to smithereens with grating chords. It’s a divine mix, a musical Mutt & Jeff routine.
What works best? Old Woody Guthrie tunes, Christmas carols and jazzy pop songs like “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book—anything where steadiness (Dan) and spazziness (me) can connect, like an Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong vocal duet. The ragtag, diminutive upstart uke is a perfect foil for the imposing, classically inclined bass. Put a banjo next to a bass, you simply have a hoedown. Put a uke there and you’ve got an extreme set-up, sought with unpredictability. Will the ukey David slay the bassy Goliath?
I rarely play uke in a band situation, but I’ve found myself duetting with bass players on a few occasions. It’s a combination somebody should focus on, creating a new jazz chamber duo sound. Imagine the possibilities. You could do a version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust” that evokes both the fluid warmth of Carmichael’s compositions and the scratchiness of his singing voice. You could merge be-bop bass styles of the 1940s and exuberant uke antics of the ‘20s. You could do the acoustic string equivalent of drum-n-bass.
The gauntlet has been thrown. Unless your uke gets bass envy (those instruments are huge) and develops performance anxiety, there’s magic to be made here. Go start uke-n-bass clubs, record the resulting squalor and send the results to me at firstname.lastname@example.org