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James Ill

James Hill Ukulele—Challenging Perceptions of the Ukulele Sound

Kip Tabb

James Hill does it all on ukulele. Bluegrass? Sure, he’s got some of his own compositions that are wonderful. Jazz? After You’re Gone is a standard that has been covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Django Reinhardt among others, and Hill nailed it—playing a lot closer to the gypsy jazz version that Reinhardt and Stefan Grappelli did. Classic rock—how about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, or taking the music to a whole new level, Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix.

If there is a musical genre that Hill has not mastered, it was not apparent from his performance.

Sunday, May 7 at St. Andrews by the Sea in Nags Head was a day to take everything anyone ever thought about what a ukulele could play or could sound like and throw it out the window.

Which is what the very best musicians do. They challenge us, challenge our way of thinking about music, take an audience with them on a journey of discovery that is joyful and stretches our imagination.

That is what the very best do, and it places James Hill in some pretty elite company.

With Hill, though, it’s not just the music, as magnificent as it is—it’s how he relates to the audience as he describes his music and the instrument he plays.

After establishing there were some ukulele players in the audience, he painted a picture of what frequency happens when the instrument is seen in public.

“If you play the ukulele, you’re also a teacher, whether you like it or not,” he said. “Somebody will come up to at an airport, or on a crosswalk, a restaurant, ‘That looks like fun can you teach me a couple of things?’ Has that happened to anyone here?”

He paused and then pointed out, “That doesn’t happen to oboe players.”

He did much more than just tell stories about ukulele players in demand as teachers. He also explained how he thought about his instrument and the process that goes into creating some of the remarkable arrangements that he has created.

It’s probably a safe statement that very few people would think of a ukulele as a jazz instrument, but Hill took the time to explain how he went about arranging the jazz classic After You’re Gone.

It started when he wondered if there was a way to make one ukulele sound like there were two hands playing it. “Like a piano,” is how he described it.

First he played the melody, then he played the chords and then put it all together in an elegant rendition of the song.

The arrangement of the song can be found in his book, Duets for One, he mentioned.

His explanation of how he developed his arrangement of After You’re Gone is just one example of how Hill presents himself to the audience, and it is that ability to relate to his audience that helped to make his performance so delightful. He seems to take real enjoyment in explaining how he gets the sounds that he does and taking people on a journey of discovery with him.

Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean is not typically a ukulele song—although after hearing Hill’s version perhaps it should be. But to do that, the musician would have to lay the bass line down, as Hill explained, then drop in the chords. And, of course, drums, which he created using the soundboard of his ukulele and using his foot as a bass drum rhythm.

The result was a magical arrangement of a pop classic.

Although the songs that perhaps challenged the perception of what a ukulele can do were jazz or pop classics, Hills background is clearly in the folk traditions of his native Canada and bluegrass and, it was in the compositions that he performed in those styles that the beautiful sound that a ukulele can produce truly came through.

One example among a number of pieces he performed was a medley of two songs that he played that were written in Singapore, which has its own tale.

The story goes that back two two pandemics ago—the Swine Flu—Hill and his wife ended up sequestered—quarantined—in a rather nice resort-like area by the Singapore government after arriving. From that came two moving yet tuneful songs in memory of friends who had passed.

“When friends pass…just one little melody you can hum to yourself to keep that friend with you…” he explained.

Adding to the magic of the day, Hill’s voice is a very nicely modulated baritone/tenor, so that in the songs that needed a voice, he was able to blend his vocals with his instrument. Nor did he try to do too much, staying rather within his strengths when he sang.

He did not, as an example, try to match Michael Jackson’s voice when he performed Billie Jean, giving it, instead his own interpretation.

In some ways, Hill's version of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child has become a signature piece and in performance it’s a stunning example of what four strings, a little electronic distortion, a great arrangement and a lot of musical skill can do.

Music has many uses, or functions. Sometimes it soothes, sometimes it brings memories and at other times it challenges us to think in ways we had never done before. And that is what James Hill brought to St. Andrews by the Sea in Nags Head.

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