A Jack of all trades stylistically, and a master of anything with strings, Nashville’s Jack Pearson returns with “Ukulele JP Style,” his ninth album since debuting nationally in 1994 with “Step Out!” One of Music City’s best kept secrets, Pearson presents 20 new ruminations in melody, all featuring his typically charming virtuosity. But otherwise, Pearson has been anything but typical. His recordings include a smooth jazz record; one of raw acoustic blues with singer William Howse; a gentle guitar duet album of Christmas music with Virginia Luque; another of mountain string band tunes with banjoist John Balch; and several that tie rock, blues and jazz together, and feature Pearson singing in a voice of effortless emotion.
One of Jack Pearson’s earliest bands included his lifelong friend and fellow slide guitarist Lee Roy Parnell. In the early 1990’s, he played in future Allman Brothers keyboardist Johnny Neel’s group, and Gregg Allman’s 1995 solo album, “Searching for Simplicity,” stands out among his countless studio sessions. Pearson was asked to join The Allman Brothers Band in 1997, and for three years stood in the esteemed slide guitarist spot next to Dickey Betts.
So, Jack Pearson’s not only been around the block; there ought to be a street named for him.
“Ukulele JP Style” presents another fascinating side of Jack Pearson. Not one of these 61 minutes of music resembles the sounds of the Hawaiian Islands, which a ukulele typically calls to mind. Instead, Pearson plays the ukulele as if playing the guitar, the emotion of the moment dictating the mood, and thus, the resulting style or sound. Although folk and blues-rooted, much of Pearson’s expression here cannot be easily classified. But in the opener, “Happy Blues for Joji,” a tribute to the man who crafted the uke that he plays throughout the album, Jack Pearson offers ironclad proof in just one minute that he has a monumental handle on the blues.
Then he’s off into realms connected by sheer artistry. Pearson’s lovely finger picking transfixes on the restless “Ready GO!” He approaches Piedmont style blues with “Someday Soon,” which sounds as if two players are playing, and that they’ve both already been there forever. “Windy Day” stills the mind, offering an impression resembling a conversation with a loved one in heaven. “Slide Boy” in title alone broadcasts the blues, and features Pearson’s indelible slide guitar tone in all its glory. “Bouncy” could be a jump blues in disguise, and “Uke Claw JP” could feature a banjo but doesn’t. The tension of what might happen going down “Slippery Hill” gets played out with incredibly dexterous phrases, and there’s a sense of real heart rending in the blues “Long Way from Home.”
Jack Pearson’s new music satisfies those that appreciate excellence, but will entertain almost anyone, in any setting. One can practically read Pearson’s mind when he plays, his emotion laid so bare. The finest guitarists on the planet cite Jack Pearson as one of the finest guitarists on the planet. “Ukulele JP Style” justifies that praise at every turn.
A quick chat with Jack Pearson
Tom Clarke: What a great record, Jack!
Jack Pearson: Hey Tom, thanks man. I’ve gotten some nice comments about the variety of moods and feelings on it.
You played a ukulele built by Japanese luthier Joji Yoshida on 19 of the album’s 20 songs. What inspired you to create a fully instrumental ukulele album?
I’ve always liked the ukulele and the way it sounds. I’ve had a couple of them through the years and then I met Joji in 2015 when he was traveling through Nashville. He came to visit our mutual friends where I was teaching at the time, and he had some of his instruments with him. He let me play his uke and I knew it was for me. He said he hadn’t heard anyone play it like I did, and I remembered that when I was thinking of album titles. So, I called the album “Ukulele JP Style.”
Which song wasn’t played on Yoshida’s uke?
I used a different uke for “Uke Claw JP.”
Did you consciously play the ukulele like a banjo on that? And who’s playing the percussion?
Yes, I was recording some of my clawhammer banjo songs (which I hope to release also), and during a break, I started playing my ukulele with my claw style, just having fun. Well, I liked what I heard so I turned the recorder on. The percussion sounds you hear are me tapping my thumb in between notes against the top like I do on the banjo head, and it’s me stomping my feet while I was playing. I was getting into it!
What makes Yoshida’s ukulele special?
It’s a six-string tenor ukulele, two of the four strings doubled with octave strings, kind of like a 12-string guitar. So, it has two single strings and two doubled strings. Anyhow, it gives it an extended range and with the way I fingerpick, it has some surprises in the melodies.
Were any of the songs written for guitar, but just seemed right for the ukulele?
Yes, some were written on guitar. One of them is “The Rev.” I wrote that as a tribute to one of my heroes, Reverend Gary Davis. I played it on ukulele one day, liked what I heard, so I recorded it.
You play several other blues on the album, a few with a slide. “Slide Boy” could be your anthem. But to me, “Long Way Home” defines you as a blues player with vision.
I played slide on three of the 20 songs. “Long Way from Home” came about when I took a couple of themes I had been playing around with, put them together and then just improvised. I like the way it sounds lonely and pretty at the same time. One day while I was listening back to it and trying to think of a name, I thought it sounded like being a long way from home. I’m so glad you like it.
Is that actual rain on a metal roof I hear during “Rainstorm Pickin’?”
While I was recording, it started raining, and you can hear it hitting a metal vent. I think it’s a nice sound, so I made some music with the rain. It was fun.
“Windy Day” sounds like a prayer in church.
Yes, it makes me think of Jesus talking to Nicodemus about the wind and being born again of The Spirit. That’s inspired several pieces of instrumental music for me, to write and play on guitar.
“Sunflower” feels like pure and natural joy, the flower reaching for and basking in the light of day.
Yep, it was a nice day, and I’m glad it came through in the music.
Maestros don’t come any more unpretentious than Jack Pearson.
-Tom Clarke for Tahoe Onstage