BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Paul Hemmings has the cool credentials. He lives in the Big Apple, digs Duke and Bird, and is a master ukulele player. Hemmings is also a recording artist, having released six critically acclaimed jazz recordings. His most recent, The Blues and the Abstract Uke, garnered a 4-star review from Downbeat, the legendary jazz publication. Not only is Paul a crackerjack musician, he is also a well-respected instructor. He has taught guitar for nearly 20 years at the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York, the country’s oldest community music school, and regularly travels the ukulele circuit, teaching and performing throughout the USA.
“I started my musical life on the guitar, and I do still play and teach guitar, but there is a lot that has already been done on guitar. The ukulele is still a pretty young instrument, so there’s more room for finding one’s own voice.” And the music Paul is drawn to in search of his musical voice is jazz. Hemmings’ latest contributions to a jazz-starved ukulele world are Duke on Uke and Bird on Uke, two books chock-full of classic Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker tunes arranged for ukulele.
“I had it in my mind to put together a series of jazz books that would fill a hole in terms of the music that was available for ukulele,” he says. “I started with the music of Duke Ellington, because I would argue he is America’s most influential composer. Ellington’s music gave me a lot to work with in terms of both chord melody and counterpoint, where you walk a bass line against a melody.” In his Duke on Uke offering, Paul presents his arrangements of 18 Ellington songs. The collection includes many classics, including “Caravan,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Satin Doll.” So, what were some of the challenges Paul found in arranging these Ellington standards for the ukulele? “The challenges would certainly be the range of the instrument and the fact that you only have four strings. Also, I always try to keep the songs in the original keys in which they were recorded and try not to get hemmed in by that limited range. The rub is trying to come up with a fully fleshed-out arrangement that can stand on its own legs and gets all the musical information across.”
And Paul does just that in the Ellington collection. The arrangements are not only musically true to the original recordings, but the music, written in both standard notation and tablature, is also very accessible to the early intermediate ukulele player.
Duke on Uke opens with the most famous jazz jam session tune of all time, Ellington’s 1942 two-note masterpiece “C Jam Blues.” Hemmings explains his approach to arranging a song like “C Jam Blues” with so very little musical information to work with. “With ‘C Jam Blues,’ the melody is so simple there’s not that much you can do in terms of chord melody. And because the melody is so sparse, it leaves big, gaping holes that cry out for a bass line. So the idea with the arrangement was to come up with a bass line and then set that against the melody.” Paul’s bass line arrangements in the Ellington book are aided using low-G tuning. The first tune I dove into in Duke on Uke was my all-time favorite Ellington composition, Caravan. The rhythmic nature of Hemmings’ arrangement is infectious, while at the same time very playable.
The best way to start learning to play Paul’s Duke Ellington arrangements is by first listening to the accompanying CD several times. Paul also has a couple of suggestions on which tunes to learn first: “‘Sophisticated Lady’ is a very approachable chord melody arrangement because it uses a lot of moveable shapes. So I think that tune is a good entry point to the book. I’d also say ‘C Jam Blues,’ which is the most straightforward counterpoint tune that’s in there, is a good tune to start with.”
The second offering in Hemmings’ series on jazz artists is Bird on Uke, featuring the music of legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. According to Hemmings, “Charlie Parker was that next revolutionary voice in the evolution of the jazz language. He incorporated a whole bunch of scales and advanced harmonies.” So how do the first two books in the series differ? “If the Duke book is counterpoints and chord melodies, then the Charlie Parker book is just playing single-note saxophone melodies. I tried to get that sax-like phrasing. By using the ukulele’s shorter scale length, I could get some incredibly wide intervals using hammer-ons and pull-offs and get really close to those lines.”
In Bird on Uke, you’ll find Paul’s arrangements of such Parker classics as “Ornithology,” “Moose the Mooch,” “Scapple from the Apple,” “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Yardbird Suite.”Probably the most accessible tune for the intermediate player to start with in the Parker collection is “Now’s the Time.” “The arrangement of ‘Now’s the Time’ has all the techniques I just referred to— hammer-ons, pull-offs, and a huge stretch that you really couldn’t pull off on any other stringed instrument other than a ukulele.” The Bird on Uke book also comes with an accompanying CD. “My goal with the Charlie Parker book is to be able to use the ukulele’s size to one’s advantage for a change—to use the scale length and register of the ukulele to get all of that saxophone phrasing.”
Hemmings will spotlight the music of Thelonious Monk with the December 2020 release of the third book in the jazz series, Monk on Uke. He will debut the music from Monk on Uke with a performance of the entire book on December 1 at the legendary Birdland jazz club in New York City.
“As I said earlier, there’s just a big hole in this part of ukulele literature that I feel like I can step in and fill. At the same time, I’m a bit greedy because I want to get something out of it, too. That’s why I’m working on music that appeals to me. At the same time I’m writing these arrangements, I’m learning from them.”