2 April 2012

Who’d’ve thunk it

There are some instruments to which people give little recognition but any instrument can have profundity when played with creativity and skill and commitment. Larry Adler and the mouth harp is a case in point. Benny Chong and the ukelele is another. Benny played at the Front Café on Sunday and he was a revelation. Benny was in Australia for an international ukulele convention in Melbourne, but has a sister here is Canberra, so we lucked out. He plays jazz … yes, jazz … on a baritone ukulele tuned DGBE (I just learned the common uke is a soprano tuned GCEA) and it’s a wonder. His playing is chordally rich and melodically invigourating and he plays solos like a hot jazz guitarist. The uke community was out in force, of course, and I overheard talk of a workshop he’d given the previous day. I think it’s fair to say for many, the uke is an instrument of a few simple chords (like singer-songwriter guitarists), but he highlighted the need to know all the notes on the fingerboard and study chords alterations. All standard instrumental technique, but perhaps unexpected here. It’s just evidence of our prejudices on this instrument. But Benny is a master. He plays small gigs with stand in bassists. James Luke did an excellent job with Benny, throwing solos back and forth and providing a solid, driving foundation. Benny had played with Ben Robertson in Melbourne and Craig Scott in Sydney – he’s obviously no slouch! His tunes were mainly standards: Satin doll and Cheek to cheek; blowers like Oleo and All blues; ballads like the Nearness of you and Nightingale sang on Berkeley Square. He occasionally played solo – a Hawaiian tune and Johnny Mandel’s Emily. But mostly it was well known tunes and blow-out soloing with that identifiable tone: both sharp and thuddy and with limited sustain, fingerpicked or strummed with open hands. It’s a small fingerboard, too, so lots of frets in a small space so quite demanding on precision. I guessed they were nylon strings and their short string length would affect tension and tone. I revelled in his rich chordal soloing and fast and even dissonant solos. This was seriously swinging jazz. Great stuff: a revelation and a pleasant host, too.

I just arrived to see the end of Dollface’s set, but here’s a pic. Benny Chong (baritone ukulele) played with James Luke (bass) at the Front Café. Dollface were Alice Cottee (vocals), Cal Glugston (guitar) and Jay Lee (ukelele).

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