Paul Hemmings – The Blues and the Abstract Uke [TrackList follows] – Leading Tone

Paul Hemmings – The Blues and the Abstract Uke [TrackList follows] – Leading Tone LTR 15-006, 57:06 [10/9/15] ****:

(Paul Hemmings – ukulele; Gaku Takanashi – bass; Rudy Royston – drums; Greg Tardy – tenor saxophone (tracks 3, 5, 7, 9); Curtis Fowlkes – trombone (tracks 3, 7, 9))

What do you think of when someone mentions a ukulele? Hawaiian music? Don Ho? Well, if you didn’t reference jazz, you should. That’s because Paul Hemmings has successfully turned the tiny, four-string ukulele into a venerable jazz instrument. On his 57-minute trio project, The Blues and the Abstract Uke, Hemmings shows his chosen string instrument can be filled with nuance, have a wonderful timbre, be purposeful and have a full sound, and can strip away any sense of limitation some may perceive. Comparisons to ukulele great Jake Shimabukuro are inevitable, given there are so few ukulele players who have taken the instrument into new musical realms. But Hemmings proves there are other ways to communicate by means of ukulele and not replicate what Shimabukuro has done.

Hemmings began as a guitarist and it took him a while to appreciate the disparities in performing on a ukulele instead of a guitar. Eventually, he approached the instrument as something other than a small guitar, learning new techniques to craft it into something which could effectively be used as a lead jazz instrument. As he states, “I just love that bright, organic warm and focused sound.” Some people might dismiss the ukulele because of its limited range. Hemmings says, “I feel like it’s forced me to be more creative.”

One method Hemmings switched to is fingerpicking rather than having apick, and using his thumb. That style is similar to what Wes Montgomery employed, thus it’s no surprise to find Montgomery’s classic “West Coast Blues” among the ten tracks (six covers, four by Hemmings). This rendition is done as a straightforward guitar/electric bass/drums trio version. It’s fascinating to hear how Hemmings plays on a smaller fretboard with only four strings but manages to generate excellent, swinging jazz. Bassist Gaku Takanashi (on electric bass, although on most material he is on acoustic bass) rides the pocket like the pro he is, while drummer Rudy Royston (who has backed Will Bernard, James Brandon Lewis, Joe Magnarelli and many others) keeps the pacing upfront and varied.

Hemmings’ other cover tunes flit between diverse genres. He hits a winning country stance on his adaptation of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which echoes neo-folk artists such as David Grisman or Tony Rice. Royston perfectly melds jazz with a country shuffle, while Hemmings’ picking will probably remind some of Chet Atkins, who also liked to mesh jazz and country elements. Hemmings turns to the blues for inspiration with a light, pleasing treatment of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” where he embodies the lyrical content via his highly melodic picking, which is less like the Bessie Smith version and more akin to Eric Clapton (think Clapton’s Unplugged interpretation rather than the earlier one by Derek and the Dominos). Hemmings continues the folk-blues mélange with his slightly abstract reading of Walter Vinson’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which incidentally was also recorded by Atkins and Clapton (during his Cream days). Takanashi’s sensitive acoustic bass has a beautiful tonality, particularly evident when he solos, while Royston layers subtle percussive precision. Another memorable piece is a sublime excursion through Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” which was a big RnB hit in 1950. Contemporary blues fans should recognize this as it was taped by B.B. King for his 1997 album Deuces Wild. Hemmings digs deep into a blues feeling, channeling the original’s sorrowful impression into an emotional response. The trio is bolstered on a refined rendering of Jim Hall’s “Careful” with the addition of tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy, who has also supported Andrew Hill, Stefon Harris and Bill Frisell (who’s also a huge Hall fan: see the Hall/Frisell duet CD, Hemispheres). Hall’s durable stimulation is further fostered on “Study Hall,” a swinging minor blues penned a few months before Hall passed away. Hemmings clarifies, “Jim Hall helped me fall in love with dissonance.” The tune is one of three which includes Tardy alongside trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Together the two harmonize mostly in fourths during “Study Hall.”

Tardy and Fowlkes (who has also collaborated with Frisell) also perform together on a rousing delivery of Hemmings’ “The Boogaloo Sensei of 78th Street,” which has an amicable, pre-bop deportment that is traditional, swinging and fun. All five musicians also share space on the lengthy “Hello Bean,” a New Orleans-tinted tribute to Hemmings’ son. Hemmings notes his child is even part of the arrangement, “You can hear his heartbeat, recorded from one of his sonograms, at the end of the track.” Who knows, a father/son ukulele partnership might be in the future? Hemmings’ upcoming endeavors ought to be worthy of discovery. Like Shimabukuro, Hemmings is showing the world there is more to the humble ukulele than what most people might think. If anyone is interested in what Hemmings has done, there’s an introductory promotional video which can be viewed.

TrackList: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out; Folsom Prison Blues; The Boogaloo Sensei of 78th Street; West Coast Blues; Careful; Goodbye Lentil; Hello Bean; Sittin’ on Top of the World; Study Hall; Please Send Me Someone to Love.

—Doug Simpson

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