In the realm of solo ‘ukulele playing, you can count the number of those specializing in jazz on one hand. An essential name that both ‘ukulele players and jazz aficionados can appreciate is Benny Chong. Benny is a seasoned musician in his own right as a former guitarist for the Ali’is (Don Ho’s band). Though he originally picked up the ‘ukulele at 11, he put down the instrument for 35 years or so until bringing his baritone uke to a gig with Don Ho. At the end of the night Don told Benny, “Anytime you wanna play ‘ukulele, it’s fine with me.”
Since then he has released his landmark album ‘Ukulele Jazz, featured as one of the artist in the concert series turned CD The Art of the Solo ‘Ukulele, and has appeared on various ‘ukulele recordings. Gigging around Hawai’i and tours in the US and Japan keeps Benny busy as he spreads his music and jovial personality to the world.
Today we listen to Benny playing alongside his usual partner in crime Byron Yasui (UkePrint on Byron coming soon!) on bass. They play the jazz standard The Nearness of You, a now staple in the ‘ukulele catalog. Here Benny picks and uses rich chords to articulate the melody with tasteful embellishment. We can even see him using some of his famous “stretches” as he uses his thumb to fret notes on the 3rd and 4th string while using his other fingers to fret the 2nd and 1st string. As the bass enters the song, now Benny has freedom to show off some of his bebop skills. There is so much to take away from watching Byron and Benny play on any given day so on the rare chance to see these gentleman play. . .you better not miss it!
On a personal note: I originally met Benny on The Art of the Solo ‘Ukulele and then again years later when I was in college. Alongside of his humble nature and willingness to talk ‘ukulele and music he even gave me his contact info just in case any question was left unanswered. Later I had the pleasure of joining them for a couple tunes at one of their gigs (still surreal for me). Not only was it musically a learning experience for me but also a great reminder to pass on knowledge and create opportunities for young musicians to gain meaningful and positive experiences. Thanks Benny, Byron and Robert (Shinoda) for that!
UkePrints is a curated playlist of some essential ukulele tracks that all ukulele player should listen to. These songs have left a legacy for future players and in essence, sound impressions of the ‘ukulele or what I like to call them: UkePrints.