Ryan Choi: Whenmill

Press releases naturally exaggerate the quality of the products they promote, but the one accompanying Ryan Choi's second release (Three Dancers on Accretions the first) makes a credible claim in characterizing it as “a decisive, visionary flight beyond the common rhetoric of the instrument.” For whatever impressions and associations of the ukulele one might bring to the recording, they're quickly dispelled the moment Whenmill begins. Issued on the Belgian label Off, the release features the Honolulu-based Choi (b. 1984) performing four of his own modern classical compositions on the baritone ukulele.

The ukulele wasn't, in fact, his first instrument: he started out on double bass before gravitating to tenor and baritone ukuleles, which he now plays in both standard and non-traditional tunings. Though one never gets the impression that he's using Whenmill to demonstrate the instrument's versatility and range, the recording nevertheless does so as a natural byproduct of his playing, which is virtuosic without being self-indulgent, and there are times during Whenmill when the listener could conceivably mistake the baritone ukulele for a classical guitar, given the dexterity of his fingerwork. Choi plays with delicacy during the ruminative passages, but he's just as comfortable executing rapid-fire flurries when the material demands it (as it does on the 2013 title track), and with only one instrument featured, there's a clarity to the presentation that enhances the recording. If there's a central setting here, it's 2011's “South Aleksandr,” simply because at twelve minutes it provides the most comprehensive account of Choi's advanced technical ability, playing style (which in this case is at times surprisingly bluesy and swinging), and compositional approach. It is, quite simply, a bravura performance.

At twenty-seven minutes, Whenmill is more mini-album than full-length, but in re-imagining the ukulele's potential as a vehicle for modern composition and solo performance it certainly does accomplish something significant despite that modest running time. It's a recording whose appeal can extend beyond ukulele enthusiasts to fans of guitar instrumental playing in general; to cite one example, admirers of Kevin Kastning's solo work would also probably find much to like about Whenmill, especially when Choi's four formally composed pieces so often exemplify the character of real-time improvisations.

August 2016