James Hill,
A Flying Leap
(Borealis, 2006)

James Hill is a ukulele's best friend. Too often, the humble instrument is content to be a toy of those who like to pretend they're playing Hawaiian music, long-time backup instrument in a dozen different folk albums, reliable, sweet and chronically overlooked. Until now, when Hill convinces his ukulele to kick up its heels and go for A Flying Leap.

From the first track, "Uke Talk," it's clear this isn't the usual ukulele. Laid back, gregarious and full of rapid patter, "Uke Talk" is ready to take on those famous dueling banjos at a moment's notice. A quick tempo and folk style melodies dominate the album.

"Down Rideau Canal" sparkles and flashes like a brook in the sun, "Skipping Stone" balances the flow of the ukulele with the rapid patter of spoons, and "Fleas My Has" manages to speak for itself even with tongue in cheek. But Hill keeps the tone varied with well-spaced experimentations. The most extreme of these is Hendrix's "Little Wing," which goes through a most peculiar metamorphosis on the way from Hendrix's growling delivery to Hill's light touch. There's also the coy, wordless love story of "Cheri's Song," which comes on slow only to spring into wild motion when no one's paying attention. But the grand stand out is Hill's classically styled "One Small Suite for Ukulele." Spread across the rippling "Allegro Con Brio," the slow swelling "Largo Cantabile" and the triumphant "Vivace Giocoso," it's the essence of an opera poured into less than 15 minutes.

With only two exceptions-- the aforementioned "Little Wing" and the final piece "Never on Sunday" -- A Flying Leap is entirely Hill's work. He creates the compositions, he plays his ukulele and, but for a brief sweet contribution from Anne Davison and her cello on "One Small Suite for Ukulele," he is his own musical backup. Besides the starring instrument, Davis plays acoustic and bass guitar, electric ukulele, tambourine, spoons and even the phonebook, giving each the same bright spark he brings to his pet uke.

It may be challenging, even startling, but without taking A Flying Leap there'd be no chance of landing somewhere new. James Hill makes sure at least a few feet get resettled.

by Sarah Meador
6 January 2007

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