Latest album: Ukulele Jazz: Live in Concert Hilo, Hawaii
Genre: Hawaii; ‘ukulele
Benny Chong; 2011
List price: $21.00
The album: Enjoy the warm sounds of this one night special performance at the Palace in Hilo, Hawaii with Benny Chong and Byron Yasui aka B2.
“The result is an intelligent, fun and incredible performance of jazz standards… it will definitely blow your mind.”
Benny Chong is one of the most innovative technical virtuosos in the history of the ‘ukulele. His first album of instrumental jazz uke, Ukulele Jazz (2005), is a stunning debut that immediately established the former professional guitarist as the most formidable player in the genre, arguably including Lyle Ritz. Here was an album that took many of the elements of Ritz’s approach and presented them in highly advanced arrangements that combined sensitive musicianship with an almost florid virtuosity. In his excellent liner notes to the album, former University of Hawaii professor of music composition and theory Byron Yasui wrote that Chong’s jaw-dropping playing “includes novel left and right hand techniques, chord voicings new to the ukulele.”
What are some of the hallmarks of Chong’s technique? “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 arrangements.”
… Like one of his heroes, Tal Farlow, Chong’s unorthodox technique was self-taught. In less gifted hands, this could be an impediment to musical expression. In the case of Benny Chong, however, his idiosyncratic but profound understanding of the ukulele’s layout and his experimentation with harmonic intervals far apart on the fret board has transformed our understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. Ohta-San once lamented his inability to play Satie’s voicings for major-seventh chords on the ukulele. Chong’s innovations just might make it possible to perform music that was once considered unplayable on the instrument.
“Benny Chong has been known for more than 40 years as the guitarist who helped make Don Ho & the Aliis one of the biggest acts in contemporary Hawaiian music. It has only been in the last few years that Chong has stepped forward as an ukulele virtuoso – although his solo recordings have only been on a compilation album. This is his long-awaited debut as a solo artist. Chong proves worth the wait.”
–The Star Bulletin on Benny Chong’s first solo ‘ukelele CD.
Benny Chong 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.
The Art of Solo ‘Ukulele; Tradex; 2002
Ukulele Jazz; Music Ben Productions; 2005
Island Style ‘Ukulele; Neos Productions; 2011