Humble ukulele gets a jazzy vibe
Best known as a founding member of Don Ho’s backing group, The Aliis, Benny Chong is lauded as a virtuoso jazz player. Honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts, his accomplishments include a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for his CD “Ukulele Jazz: Live in Concert at Hilo, Hawaii.”
Chong is one of the musicians performing Saturday at the free “Seed to Cup” Coffee Festival at the Maui Tropical Plantation.
In the world of solo ukulele playing, very few musicians specialize in jazz. Besides Chong, jazz ukulele pioneers include the great Bill Tapia, who released his first album, “Tropical Swing,” at the age of 96 in 2004, and Lyle Ritz, whose albums “How About Uke?” and “50th State Jazz” were popular in Hawaii in the late 1950s.
“Benny Chong is one of the best jazz uke players in the world,” praised Ukulele Review, while Ukulele magazine marveled at his, “thrilling chord progressions and mind-bogglingly fast runs of his playing. Benny’s turbo-speed chord transitions and extremely wide harmonic intervals on the fretboard surpass most players’ capabilities.”
“I am one of the very few who play jazz on the ukulele,” says Chong. “Ukulele was my first instrument back in the ’50s, and everyone then played the same songs like ‘Hilo March,’ and I felt it could play more. I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Kenton and so on, and that’s how I got started playing jazz. But it’s a challenge to play it on four strings and make it sound right.”
The complexity and sophistication of his improvisational skill is evident on his impressive debut solo album “Ukulele Jazz,” released in 2005. It included such classic standards as “Georgia,” “Cry Me a River,” “I Remember Clifford” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.”
In the liner notes to the album, University of Hawaii Music Professor Byron Yasui wrote that Chong’s dazzling playing, “includes novel left and right hand techniques,” and “chord voicings new to the ukulele.”
On his Hoku-winning live album with Yasui on bass (they perform together as B2), he interpreted more standards including “Cheek to Cheek,” Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and “My Funny Valentine.”
“The result is an intelligent, fun and incredible performance of jazz standards,” proclaimed multi-Hoku-winning bassist Nathan Aweau. “It will definitely blow your mind.”
Given his first ukulele by his parents at the age of 10, he spent hours as a teenager absorbing jazz records by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, keyboard-ists Johnny Griffith and Oscar Peterson, and guitarists Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery.
When his uncle suggested he listen to Ritz’s album “How About Uke?,” Chong was blown away that you could play jazz on an ukulele. He subsequently learned every song on that album, note for note.
By the age of 20, Chong had switched to guitar. In 1961, he was among a group of five young men recruited by the U.S. Air Force for the USAF Band at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. After two years of touring as the Hawaiian Aliis, they returned to Hawaii and were recruited by Don Ho as his new backing band. They would go on to make musical history in our state.
After three decades playing guitar, Chong finally returned to the ukulele.
“I started playing the ukulele again in the later part of my life after about 30 years,” he explains. “Byron Yasui asked if I could do a concert as an ukulele player at the Honolulu Academy of Arts with Jake Shimabukuro. I just started to play the ukulele again.”
A live album of the event, which took place in April, 2000, “The Art of Solo Ukulele” was released and is available at the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ gift shop. It includes Chong’s interpretations of the classics “The Way You Look Tonight” and “All the Things You Are.”
As far as his jazz style, Chong prefers a more melodic approach.
“I’m more in the contemporary bebop era because of my age,” he says. “I would go to my uncle’s house and hear jazz music, and that’s how I really latched on to it. In the ’50s, when everyone was listening to Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets, I was listening to the jazz greats.”
The popular country vocal group Home Free will make its Maui debut Aug. 9 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. The band is touring on the heels of its most recent album, “Timeless,” which debuted at the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Country chart, its fourth consecutive Top-5 Billboard debut.
Featuring five vocalists — Austin Brown, Rob Lundquist, Adam Rupp, Tim Foust and Adam Chance — the group won the fourth season of “The Sing-Off” on NBC in 2013. They sang an arrangement of Hunter Hayes’ “I Want Crazy” as the final song, earning the group $100,000 and a recording contract with Sony/Columbia.
Home Free was originally formed by brothers Adam and Chris Rupp in 2000 in Mankato, Minn., when some of its members were still in their teens.
In terms of musical roles, Home Free is structured like a traditional barbershop quartet, with a lead tenor, two harmony voices and a bass.
Since its TV win, Home Free has released the albums “Crazy Life,” the Christmas collection “Full of Cheer” and “Country Evolution” in 2015.
“Although the covers are entertaining and the highlight of the group’s live performances, the original songs on this 11-track album really showcase Home Free’s potential,” noted a Country Standard Time review of “Country Evolution.”
The band’s latest album, “Timeless,” features five original compositions and nine covers, including Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone” and John Mayer’s “In the Blood.” Joining them on the record are two country icons. The Oak Ridge Boys collaborate with the band on their classic “Elvira,” while Charlie Daniels is featured on Home Free’s version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
“Working with some of those big names has really validated us,” Brown told The Boot. “There hasn’t been anything like what we do for a long time, since the Oak Ridge Boys.”
Earlier this year, they released a video for their cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway.” In June they released a video of their a cappella version of the O’Jays hit “Love Train.” And in late July came a new video remix of Dierks Bentley’s “Woman, Amen” and Keith Urban’s “Female.”
“We were inspired to do a mash-up after we saw Dierks perform ‘Woman, Amen’ at the ACM Awards,” explained Foust to Sounds Like Nashville. ” ‘Female’ was so striking to us when Keith debuted it at the CMAs, and we couldn’t resist blending these two songs that celebrate not only the incredible women in our life, but around the world.”
The five-man band has become known for their show-stopping performances that mix their signature all-vocal music with humor. Their repertoire can range from country hits like Maren Morris’s “My Church,” pop favorites like Shakira’s “Try Everything” and a unique arrangement of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.”
“It may be safe to say that no a cappella group has a more rabid fan base than Home Free,” praised a Sounds Like Nashville review. “It’s not until you see the quintet live that one realizes just how much precision and honed timing goes into their sound and delivery, lighting up the theatre with their killer harmonies that send fans into a frenzy.”
* Home Free plays the MACC’s Castle Theater on Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.50, $35.50 and $45.50; VIP tickets are $95.50 and $195.50. Prices increase $5.50 day-of-show (plus applicable fees). The Ultimate VIP package for $195.50 features a front row concert ticket, commemorative VIP lanyard and laminate, commemorative poster and tote bag, individual photo opportunity with all five members (using your own camera), autograph session, Q&A with the group, access to a private performance (one song) and exclusive merchandise shopping opportunity. The VIP package for $95.50 includes a concert ticket in the second, third, fourth or fifth row, commemorative VIP lanyard and laminate, commemorative poster, Q&A with the group, access to a private performance (one song) and exclusive merchandise shopping opportunity.
Maui’s Maoli head to Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon in Paia on Friday for a CD release party for its latest recording, “With Love.” The show also includes TFlatz and other special guests.
From the fiery opening of “Remember Your Roots” to their effective reggae take on Bonnie Raitt’s ballad, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Maoli have compiled another memorable collection.
Their previous recordings include the EP “One Eighty,” which featured the local hits “No Way” and “Sun Will Shine,” and “The Best of Maoli,” released in 2016.
The show begins at 9 pm. Presale tickets are $20 and are available at www.maolimusic.com. Price goes up to $25 at the door. For more information, call 579-8085. Must be 21 years or older to attend.