25 March 2012

Uke beauty!

Text by Jason Lee; pics with permission by Stephen Taylor

When the ukulele is mentioned, one does not immediately think of jazz. Perhaps George Formby and his 1940s British music hall stylings come to mind, a la 'When I'm Cleaning Windows'. Perhaps Tiny Tim's 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' come to mind. Younger people might recall Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's 'What a Wonderful World'/'Over the Rainbow' medley, Train's 'Hey, Soul Sister', or the rash of YouTube covers of Jason Mraz's 'I'm Yours' played on the ukulele. In this age of internet video, surely you would have come across Jake Shimabukuro's uke version of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'?

But I'm getting off track. I am, after all, talking about jazz. In the ukulele's history, it does have a connection. The little chordophone's first boom period was the 1920s Jazz Age, when many of the Tin Pan Alley tunes of the American Songbook were written. Of course, many of these were "Hapa Haole" (half-white) tunes with pseudo-Hawaiian lyrics.

Look, I'm getting off track again. Let's get back to talking about jazz. There have been a few players who have used the ukulele primarily to play jazz. Some names to mention are Lyle Ritz, Herb Ohta, Benny Chong and even Australia's own Azo Bell. Hmmm... I mentioned Benny Chong...

A week ago, I came back from Melbourne after four nights of ukulele excess: The Melbourne Ukulele Festival. Among the many and varied acts of the festival, from all over the world, from all sorts of genres, one stood out head over heels for me: Benny Chong.

He came on as the second last act of Saturday night, starting off with two pieces that he played solo. From the first note, one could sense a change in mood in the audience, with the "oohs" and "aahs" and stifled bits of applause, as Benny in his understated way brought out sound after sound after sound after amazing sound. This was not, by all means, a jazz audience, and they were frankly being blown away by what Benny was doing. When he started playing his ukulele in thumb position, in the manner of a bassist/cellist, the excitement in the room notched up another level... I've seen many ukulele players and he is the only one I know who plays in thumb position, pulling out intervals about two octaves wide. This was probably the first time many in the audience had experienced, rapid-fire chord-melodies, in extensions and substitutions waaaayyy beyond common triads; the first time they had their ears assaulted, nay treated, with live melodic sounds of the bebop, diminished, lydian dominant, diminished-whole-tone kind.

Then he introduced the audience to bassist Ben Robertson. You dear reader, would probably know who Ben Robertson is, but I don't think many of the audience did. I certainly didn't. They proceeded to play through standards like 'The Nearness of You', 'My Romance', 'I Remember April' (with a quote from 'Tequila' for good measure), 'Cherokee' and 'Cheek to Cheek'. You talk about cranking the dial to eleven. This was to twenty and beyond. The night was about cutting one notch after another above what had just been cut a moment ago. As Ben and Benny traded solos, you could tell that they were really enjoying themselves and cooking. They audience was j**zing itself. I know I was. It was multiple audio orgasm for me. My non-jazz-fan mate sitting next to me was laughing at me, saying "Hey man! I've never seen you this excited before at a gig..."

When Benny and Ben finished their all too short set, the applause was wild! A standing ovation that was very rare throughout the whole festival. Even though they were running over time, Benny was the gentleman and explained that there was an act to follow... But Ben and Benny gave us an encore... again, thrilling the audience.

When the MC came on, he raved on about how Benny and Ben had just met five minutes before the gig.

Anyway, Benny happens to have a sister in Canberra. And Benny happens to be staying in Canberra till mid April before he returns to Hawaii. And Benny will be playing a very cheap last-minute gig at the Front Gallery and Cafe in Lyneham on Sunday the 1st of April, 7pm. $10 cover charge. Children under 12 free.

He played the Vanguard in Sydney with Craig Scott, Chair of jazz at the Sydney Con before Melbourne and apparently got rave reviews there too. Don't miss Benny in Canberra!

No comments: