In the field of solo 'ukulele playing, the number of recording artists who
specialize in jazz can be counted on one hand. Bill Tapia and Lyle Ritz are two
names that immediately come to mind. Now with this historic CD, Benny Chong's
name can be officially added to that "endangered" list.
Benny taught himself to play the 'ukulele when he was about 11 years old.
After nine years or so, he virtually put the 'ukulele away for some thirty-five
years. When I met him in 1964, he was the guitarist with the Ali'is, the band that
backed up Don Ho. In 2000, I invited him to be one of the four artists in
"The Art of Solo 'Ukulele", a concert series that led to a CD and a public TV
special. These events revitalized his interest in the 'ukulele,
resulting in his debut album Ukulele Jazz.
Who would expect to hear on a commercial 'ukulele recording such jazz
standards as Like Someone in Love, I Remember Clifford and Night in Tunisia,
the latter in a reggae setting? Even when playing non-jazz tunes, such as the
BeeGees' Spicks and Specks, and Broadway songs arranged in a funk groove
(Happy Talk and Summertime), Benny's jazz roots come through in his playing.
At any rate, his improvised jazz solos, over any type of accompaniment or no
accompaniment at all, are on a par with the very best played on any instrument
anywhere. His rendition of Meditation even includes a sophisticated touch of
humor, with a quote from the musical "Oklahoma".
Beyond a repertoire comprised mostly of musically challenging jazz standards
never before even attempted on the 'ukulele, Benny's contributions to 'ukulele
playing include novel left and right hand techniques, chord voicings new to the
'Ukulele, and an unprecedented level of virtuosity. Through exotic and often
widespread left hand fingerings, he comes up with chords in open position that
would otherwise be impossible to play in the reentrant (high D) tuning that he uses
on his baritone 'uke. Such chord voicings require the use of the left thumb, as can
be seen in his CD's cover and heard, for example, in Georgia. And his
natural feel for swing is evident in the illusion of drum kicks that he creates
through subtle plucks and strums of dampened strings, as in I Let a Song Go Out
of My Heart.
In Cry Me a River, alone, many of his ingenuous and virtuosic techniques,
never before heard on the 'ukulele, are further displayed: chord grips involving
open strings mixed with strings stopped at higher frets, right hand control of
different volumes for different strings within the same chord, a silky smooth
strumming technique, rapid single string picking across the four strings, and
lightning fast chord/melody movements.