Ryan Choi is a multi-instrumentalist, but his primary instrument is the ukulele. On Three Dancers, his debut album—strictly an EP, at just under twenty minutes—he plays baritone ukuleles with preparations, in both standard and non-traditional tunings, selectively enhanced by percussion or electronics.
Choi was born, and still lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is, of course, the home of the ukulele. Maybe Ryan Choi is his real name; maybe he took it from DC Comics’ The All-New Atom. His first instrument was the double bass, but, he says: “my focus in recent years has been on composition, improvisation, and private performance on the ukulele.”
I very much doubt that either George Formby or the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had any influence. Nor Hawaiian traditional music come to that, not even as popularised by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. The most obvious comparator from a non-Hawaiian perspective must be Eugene Chadbourne, if only because the prepared ukulele and Chad’s banjo both sound similarly wiry, barbed and percussive, but also because Choi’s approach is just as unconventional and individualist as Chadbourne’s.
The three pieces on Three Dancers were all inspired by literature and visual art. The album title references Picasso’s Les Trois Danseuses, but the cover art is Choi’s own Aquarian.
The lead cut, “Preparations I and IV”, features just Choi’s prepared baritone ukulele. It’s played in a lively, dextrous fingerpicking style, and sounds spontaneous but too melodically intricate and well-rounded to be improvised. It’s box-fresh at any rate, vivacious, animated, and absolutely compelling.
“Apollon at Eros”, twice as long as the first cut at 9:12, has Choi using a wooden box—It actually sounds more like cardboard—as a percussion instrument, played skiffle-style like a washboard. This provides locomotive and echoic propulsion to a more chordal, roughhouse number with definite echoes of the blues and American Primitivism. As the piece goes on, Choi’s soloing develops something of a split personality, with a more relaxed attack on the lower strings for a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar sound that offsets the bare, nervy tensility of the higher notes.
On the third and final cut, “Three Dancers”, Choi plays ukulele with electronics, which initially sound as subtle as amplified wisps of finger-on-string contact sounds. But as Choi picks in increasingly crabbed and compulsive clusters, and his flow becomes incessant and insistent, the whole thing sounds weirdly back-masked. It’s a striking effect.
And that’s it. These three distinctive but complimentary pieces are clearly distillations of much concentrated practice, experimentation and refinement.
Choi has already released a follow-up, Whenmill, which is available as digital on the Off imprint (physical release pending). It’s comprised of four “modern classical” compositions for solo baritone ukulele, for which Choi adopts a more considered and lyrical approach, his ukulele tuned to approximate a Spanish guitar.
In very different ways then, Three Dancers and Whenmill present a rebuke to anyone disinclined to take the ukulele seriously. They are both worth checking out, but the exhilarating Three Dancers is the more exciting discovery. They make one wonder, what next?
Ryan Choi: prepared baritone ukuleles, percussion, electronics.