Ear-opening experiences: A Q&A with Paul Hemmings
With The Paul Hemmings Uketet (pronounced yook-TET), the unassuming four-stringed Hawaiian instrument takes its place front and center, alongside bass and drums, in a contemporary jazz trio that pushes the boundaries of what has often been considered a mere novelty instrument. Based in New York City, Hemmings draws upon the ukulele’s inherent warmth and beauty to perform a blend of original compositions, jazz standards, and contemporary classics, all the while showcasing the virtues of the diminutive instrument. From the Hawaiian Islands to the Island of Manhattan, The Paul Hemmings Uketet combines the warm spirit of Aloha with the vibrancy of New York’s world-renowned jazz scene to offer an original twist on the instrumental jazz trio.
You play a wide variety of music. How have you been exposed to different types of music and what are some of your favorite styles to play?
Well, I was raised by a mother who loves classical music and a father who loves rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, so that provided me with a degree of variety right there. When I was a teenager and got interested in actually playing music myself, I learned some blues licks from my dad and taught myself just about every Beatles tune that I could get my hands on. The big awakening for me happened when I went off to college though. I got a job at a funky little musical instrument shop where I met a group of guys who turned me on to all kinds of music that I had never even dreamed existed. They listened to everything from Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Thomas Mapfumo. Charlie Parker to John Prine. Nothing was off limits. It was such an ear-opening experience for me and it completely changed my outlook on music, and ultimately on life. I started to realize what people meant when they talk about music being the universal language. I completely fell in love with jazz and improvised music and realized that’s what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. And that’s what it still comes down to…I love to play pretty much any kind of music that incorporates an element of improvisation.
What are your favorite things about the ukelele? Is there a story behind why you choose to focus your music around this instrument?
My favorite thing about the ukulele, without a doubt, is the timbre of the instrument. I just love that bright, organic, warm, and focused sound you can get out of a good ukulele, and that has everything to do with why I’ve chosen to focus my music around it recently. I also really like the fact that the instrument has such a limited range. Some people look on that as a limitation but I feel like it’s forced me to be more creative in terms of doing more with less, which I think has helped me get closer to the elusive goal of finding my own sound.
You have played at ukelele festivals and jazz clubs around the country– how do the shows differ in these different contexts?
The jazz scene in general takes itself a lot more seriously than the ukulele scene does, that’s for sure. Ukulele festivals are usually attended by a large number of people who are interested in leaning how to play the instrument for themselves — it is after all “the instrument of the people”, right? And I really like that about the ukulele festival crowds — it definitely provides those audiences with a unique perspective. I’m not sure how many of those same people have a taste for jazz and improvised music in particular though, so there’s not a lot that you can take for granted in terms of familiarity with the music.
In jazz clubs on the other hand, you can usually take it for granted that your audience is pretty well-acquainted with the style and approach to the music so I feel like that allows for a little more room to experiment. At the same time, that familiarity can often come with its own set of expectations which can sometimes make you feel like you’re playing under a microscope.
I do pretty much the same thing in either context though, so the two kinds of venues don’t really differ all that much from my point of view. Every crowd is different and every show is different and that’s all part of the magic that happens (or doesn’t!) when you’re dealing with live music.
Who have been some of the most influential musicians that you have encountered?
The great free-jazz saxophonist John Tchicai was a mentor to me at an early stage and was an incredibly influential musician in my life. I played in some ensembles with him in California when I was in my early 20s and later on, after I moved to New York City, I had the opportunity to collaborate on an album with him, just a few years before he died. Ray Brown in Santa Cruz, CA, was also an amazing mentor. Almost everything I know about harmony comes from Ray. He’s an amazingly talented musician and arranger and has the rare gift of also being an excellent teacher. Then after I moved to New York I played for a few years with George Reed, one of the last real-deal bebop drummers. That was an amazing experience and George became a true friend. He died a couple of years ago too, and I really miss him. Apart from those three, the most influential musicians I’ve encountered have been on recordings, and their names are far too numerous to list!
Tell us what is coming for you. What is your next project that you are most excited for?
I’ve got three projects that I’m working on right now that I’m really excited about. The first is a new album by my working band here in New York, The Paul Hemmings Uketet. I’ve been working on some new original tunes and some new arrangements and we’ll be going into the studio to record them in the next few months. The album will be released in the first half of 2014. I’m also working on a solo ukulele album of free improvisations and soundscapes where I use the uke along with some effects and loops. It’s a lot more experimental than the music I do with The Uketet and will probably scare some people, but that approach to music has always been near and dear to my heart and it’s nice to have an outlet for it. I’ve also started working on an instructional book and DVD that will be out next year.