I know that plenty of you have loads of nights out, but this one was something special. I received an email from James Hill to say that he was playing in a charming little place called the Evergreen Theatre on Saturday night. James plays ‘ukulele...seriously.
I did play ukulele years ago, and have recently picked it back up again since I live in one of the ukulele pockets of the country. In the late 70s our ukulele troop from Edmonton travelled to Vancouver to play with the group in Langley, who were one of the premier classes in the country. I ate, slept and breathed ukulele in those days. I graduated from the soprano triangular style to a beautiful tenor uke (shaped like the small guitar that is so popular today). My Dad made me an elegant wooden case with brass corners to carry it around in. At the time, an ambitious and talented head of music for the Halifax School Board named J. Chalmers Doane developed a program that made classroom ukulele a staple for all of us (he has since been awarded the Order of Canada). This was a great way for kids to learn an instrument that was fairly inexpensive, and to enjoy singing and strumming together as a group before diving into some of the more spectacular technique work or adding additional instruments to the mix. For me a good part of the fun was in seeing if us kids could learn just a little bit faster than our teachers were.
James is a graduate of that program in Langley, BC, under the tutelage of Peter Luongo, and he has done some intense work all over the world. He has also worked directly with Chalmers Doane and together they have created a new series of uke books for the classroom. He’s put out three CDs that show his depth and creativity as a musician as well as the range of ways that he can make that ukulele sing. There are also some great video clips of him on YouTube where you can see him perform Down Rideau Canal as well as Ode to a Frozen Boot.
Saturday evening my sister and I drove an hour and a half to East Margaretsville to take in the concert, where James was accompanied by Anne Davison on cello. The ukulele / cello combo is something new to me, though not that far out in the sense that lots of ukulele players will partner up with a bass player. This, however is a superior match. As a team, these two professionals are great to hear and see. Anne’s cello is a great support to James’ uke, and her playful facial expressions as well as her skill with a range of music are a complete delight. She’s not just a part of the backup music, though; her command and expertise of that cello is clear. She plays magnificently, and as a team, these two are unbeatable as they blend music and rhythm with a playful sprinkling of mischief.
James’ mastery of the ukulele is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I have been around plenty of ukulele in my time. This is serious uke that pushes the envelope of even non-traditional playing. This is jazz, blues, bluegrass, rock and classical music. He composes and is a talented entertainer. Song for Cheri is already a favourite for me, a bluegrass tune that I couldn’t stop humming on the way home. He’s youthful too, and so his CD version of tunes like the Theme from Inspector Gadget and the Super Mario Theme Song are just pure fun. I cannot wait to see what else comes from this musical genius. I am thrilled that James has chosen to live here in Nova Scotia, because I know that I’ll get to see plenty more of him, and that inspires me to get my own uke out and fire it up.
Play on folks! Play on!