Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ukulele Vibes: Abe Lagrimas Jr. on Ukulele, Music, and the Importance of Listening

For Abe Lagrimas Jr., one of today’s most dynamic ukulele players, music is very much tied in with listening—being open to new ideas and being willing to accept new musical genres and adapt them to one’s own playing. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I was able to connect with Abe, who, in turn, was willing to share a bit about his career and his thoughts on music with our Lambchop Ukulele Cookin’ (LUC) blog.  Before we get to the interview, however, a little background is in order.

I first came across Abe Lagrimas Jr. sometime last year when I was surfing YouTube for versions of Chick Corea’s jazz classic, “Spain.” Hoping to find a clip of how to play it on piano, I instead came across an incredible trio fronted by Abe on ukulele. Filmed at Higher Ground Café in Wahiawa, Hawaii, the video shows what a highly talented, laid-back jazz performer Abe is; his moving solo choices couple with his fast strumming are nothing short of amazing. I began sharing the video with all my friends—fellow jazz lovers and even some non-jazz people—and all of them agreed that this was brilliance.

That Higher Ground video is important to me for a number of reasons. First, it introduced me to the potential of the ukulele. I had come across the instrument before, but it wasn’t until I saw Abe that I said to myself, “Hey, I would like to play that.” I soon picked one up and, like so many others, immediately fell in love with it. More importantly, that video led me to other Abe performances, including his work on vibes and on drums, which is the instrument he originally started with at age four (see Abe tear up the vibes on his Blue Bossa YouTube video)

With a number of albums out, including his latest, Ukulele Vibes (a duet featuring Abe on both instruments), an active touring schedule and endorsements with Koolau ukuleles, Paiste cymbals, Vic Firth drumsticks, and Remo drumheads, Abe, who now resides in Los Angeles, is a busy person. Despite his hectic schedule, he graciously took the time to share his thoughts and ideas with LUC. Through his answers, Abe reveals himself as a talented, confident and humble person with a truly musical soul.

LUC: From what I understand, you have been playing since age four, starting with drums; do you see a common connection among the ukulele, drums and vibes?

Abe: Honestly, I approach each instrument pretty much the same way. At this point in my musical career, it has become natural for me to think about the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of each instrument. One element cannot fully function without the other. We can all agree that the drums and vibraphone are percussion instruments but some may think that the ukulele is only a stringed instrument. Since we are strumming/plucking the instrument, that percussive action also makes it a percussion instrument. So rhythmically, it's all the same for me. Harmonically in my head, I approach each instrument the same way but physically I have to think about it differently from each other because of the different techniques required for each instrument.

LUC: At what age did you begin playing ukulele?

Abe: Being from Hawaii, most people would think that I grew up playing the instrument. But actually, it was during my second year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA where I began messing around with it right after my 20th birthday and taught myself how to play. A few weeks later, I was doing my first gig at the Boston University Hawaii Club Luau.

LUC: In just a few short years, or so it seems, ukulele has grown in prominence and popularity (and you are a big part of that movement). What do you think explains this ukulele phenomenon?

Abe: Am I really a big part of that movement? I think the ukulele has recently become more and more popular for a couple of reasons. First, it is a fairly simple instrument to learn. It's small size makes it fairly simple for the average person to put their fingers around the neck and begin to play a few chords. People with no musical background can pick up the ukulele and with some practice, can begin to musically express themselves which allows them to discover this whole new side of them. You become hooked and start learning all of your favorite songs! Secondly, we have amazing artists like Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill to thank for showing the world what this tiny 4-stringed instrument is capable of doing. As I was teaching myself how to play, more and more was I beginning to realize that there are so many possibilities in this instrument.

LUC: Where do you see ukulele going in the future?

Abe: YouTube and the Internet have become major resources in taking the ukulele into the future. You can find countless videos online of ukulele performances, instructional videos, even a kid playing Jason Mraz tunes! I think the ukulele is heading in the right direction and I'm looking forward to what's ahead in this expanding world of ukuleles.

LUC: Tell us about some of your current projects. I just had the chance to listen to “Cookies and Ice Cream” off of your “Ukulele Vibes” album. Incredible work! It makes sense that you would pair the two instruments you play, but how did that project come about?

Abe: Thanks for listening to my album! When I first had the idea of creating an album with only these two instruments, I was listening to a lot of duo and solo albums. I listen to a lot of jazz so I was going through albums like Joe Lovano & Hank Jones' "Kids - Duets Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Chick Corea & Gary Burton's "Native Sense" and "Crystal Silence", and Brad Mehldau's solo piano album "Elegiac Cycle". It was Chick Corea and Bela Fleck's album The Enchantment that initially sparked the idea.

LUC: Tell us about your other ukulele albums.

Abe: My first album entitled "Dimensions" was released in 2006. For that album, I wanted to showcase each of the instruments I play so I recorded the ukulele, drums, vibraphone and also did a few guitar and percussion tracks. I also did a 5-part horn arrangement of the first tune I ever wrote, "Headache". Both "Dimensions" and "Ukulele Vibes" consist of all original material because I think it is important as an artist to find your own voice (sound) and to continue develop it. "Dimensions" was later picked up by Universal Music Japan and was re-released in Japan under the album name "Lovers Uke" and also included 5 additional tracks. Pony Canyon Records in Japan also showed interest in my music and I released "Uke Wired" in 2009. For "Uke Wired", I took popular rock songs by Led Zeppelin, Smashing Pumpkins, Jeff Beck, Nirvana, Oasis, and arranged them for ukulele. This summer, be on the lookout for an ukulele compilation album featuring the music of Michael Jackson.

LUC: Do you prefer to play in an ensemble or as a solo artist?

Abe: When it comes to the ukulele, I prefer to either play solo, or in a small group setting such as duo or even a trio.

LUC: One of my favorite songs ever is Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and my absolute favorite version of it is the one on YouTube that you recorded at Higher Ground. Your improvisation is incredible. The choices you make are so natural and understated, yet speak to such a firm grounding in music – what has helped you most in terms of this ability?

Abe: I'm glad you like it but I'm still working on it! Having an education in music and jazz has really helped me to understand the harmonic possibilities, but it's the countless hours of listening to music that has really helped me. Listening to a lot of music will engrave new musical ideas into your head and it's up to you as the player on how you want to interpret those ideas out on the instrument and into the listener's ear. When I improvise, a lot of things will affect the outcome. It can be anything such as the energy of the music at that moment, your mood in the day, the weather, the sound on stage, etc. I take into consideration all of those factors and try to produce something that reflect how those things affect me. This is why I also believe that jazz is a very deep and personal style of music. It cannot be reproduced, even by the same musicians. Jazz is always moving forward and just as long as people are evolving, the music will continue to evolve.

LUC: You have played with a number of famous people; any chance you and Chick Corea may get together? Piano and ukulele would be awesome.

Abe: That would be awesome! Chick Corea enjoys the duo setting. It would be nice to hear a piano and ukulele duo album.

LUC: The Koolau custom ukulele we often see you with is just beautiful; can you tell us a little bit about that one?

Abe: John Kitakis at Koolau makes some of the most beautiful and amazing sounding instruments around. I have a custom tenor that is made out of Brazilian rosewood with a spruce top and another made out of myrtlewood with a spruce top. Recently, I've been playing the myrtlewood instrument much more. Both are great instruments but I just feel much more connected to the myrtlewood one.

LUC: Do you always play with low-G tuning?

Abe: I never play low-G. I have always played high-G so it's the only way I know how to play. To me, the high-G tuning is what makes the sound of the ukulele so unique. I also prefer the high-G tuning because when I play a lot of solo pieces, I have two upper voices (strings) to choose from and I find myself learning new chord voicings every time I learn a new piece.

LUC: Any other ukuleles that you have?

Abe: In addition to the two Koolau acoustic tenors, I have a Koolau solid body electric. When I first started to play the ukulele, I was using my friend's Kamaka tenor. Then I landed the endorsement with Koolau so those are the only ukuleles I have ever owned.

LUC: Your tone is so beautiful; your tenor sounds like a classical guitar at times. What advice can you give new players on developing their tone?

Abe: Know your instrument inside and out. It helps to have a good quality instrument but not all of us can afford to buy them. We must find the strengths in our instrument and learn how to showcase those points but at the same time find the weaknesses in our instrument and learn how to turn that into a positive. It is also important to make sure all of the strings and notes are resonating in whatever fingerings we do so that each note can be heard.

LUC: Any other advice for aspiring players?

Abe: Keep your ears open and listen to a lot of different styles of music. Learn to enjoy and appreciate these new genres of music and allow it to influence your sound.

LUC: I have kind of a selfish question here; any chance you will get to the Michigan area anytime in the future? The Ann Arbor, Michigan crowd would love you, and Elderly Instruments, who sell Koolau, is in Lansing, Michigan. The two cities are about 50 or so miles apart.

Abe: I have not performed in Michigan yet but I will definitely let you know if I got something planned. I love to travel and share my music with people all over the world so I really hope to make it out there one of these days.

LUC: Abe, thanks so much for your time.

Abe: Thanks so much for having me be a part of this.

Abe, the Pleasure has been all ours!  Be sure to check Abe out at his official site,

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