Friday, November 2, 2007

Jake Shimabukuro- Don't Expect Your Grandpa's Ukuelele

Compiled from interviews done in 2006/2007

When you go out to hear ukuelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, don’t expect “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” You won’t hear any Rudy Vallee tunes, either. Shimabukuro’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” may be the definitive post-George Harrison rendering of the tune. His astonishing set of chops on the traditional Hawaiian instrument, skills that have lead to the nickname “the Jimi Hendrix of the Uke”. His repertoire includes an array of original tunes and covers that span musical genres with ridiculous ease

The basic box is the same, and Shimabukuro hasn’t added any additional strings to it. It still covers two deceptively simple octaves. Occasionally, he will add some pedals to shape the amplified sound, giving it a more guitar-like quality. Beyond his lightening speed and deft skill, the 30 year-old musician has an unerring melodic vision informing his work.

His own performances have begun to sell out everywhere he plays as word of his ability spreads.

“The sold out shows are new for us,” says the soft-spoken native of Hawaii.

“It has really begun to happen for us on this 2007 tour, especially on the west coast. Some of my friends on the mainland kept telling me it will happen when I play in their towns, but it was hard to believe. But it keeps happening, and that is just amazing to me.”

Touring With Buffett

There is no false modesty here. Shimabukuro is used to sold-out shows; he has over the past several years been touring as a Coral Reefer, a member of Jimmy Buffett’s band. He has managed to meld that larger than life experience with a deeply personal musical journey that has a path, but no clearly articulated endpoint. Shimabukuro still retains a very humble and genuine sense of awe and modesty, of knowing what it is he wants to learn, and how far he has yet to go.

“I want to respect where the instrument has come from. But the things that I have been doing and trying have already been done with other instruments. You’ve already done just about everything possible with a guitar and a bass. I’ve always believed that the ukulele could’ve been explored much more deeply; and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve also tried to keep the traditional sound.”

“In that way, I can be something of a purist. People here in Hawaii have been very supportive. I’ve never been disrespectful to the traditional music. But I want to extend the range of it. I can use the instrument to pull off a few classical pieces, or jazz, or rock. If I can change the sound for some tunes by using pedals, maybe it can spark something for people. I want people to get excited about the instrument and expand it’s possibilities.”

At the Beginning

Shimabukuro has literally grown with the instrument from his earliest days. He started playing the ukulele at the age of four.

“I started with the basic chording, the traditional Hawaiian approach. As I grew, and became exposed to other influences, I tried to find different sounds, new chords and shades, and extend the voicings possible with the instrument.”

Shimabukuro’s stage presence is electrifying. The fourth-generation Japanese-American can careen from a subtle, peaceful strumming style to a wild, flailing rock-influenced urgency.

Shimabukuro understands that this can be disconcerting sometimes.

Last year, he was asked to play the National Anthem at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“I was incredibly nervous. The Honor Guard marched out and the next thing I knew, all this amazing noise died down, and I was standing in the middle of the Garden. All of these people must’ve been thinking ‘what’s this little Japanese guy gonna do with that tiny guitar.’ Once I started, I was fine, and the crowd really loved it. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.”

Shimabukuro has released a steady stream of CD’s and EP’s, featuring solo covers, mixed originals and covers done with a band; he has even completed a moving and beautiful soundtrack for the movie “Hula Girls.” His output is astonishing.


Although original music has always been a staple of his recordings, he has been unafraid to cover an interesting array of songwriters, including Paul Simon, Sting, George Harrison, classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo, and jazz pianist Chick Corea. He is often attracted to song by some element he notices.

“I feel a lot of times I have two ways of hearing music, which I can actually turn off and on at will. I can listen for pure enjoyment. But then, there is a part of me that can be analyzing, learning and understanding what is going on. I can concentrate on the texture and color-- listening over and over. I listen to what is happening in each part, because I want to grasp all the subtleties and nuances.”

It’s not all work, he points out, with a laugh.

“Sometimes I just want to go and listen and not even try to understand what is happening, have a good time. I’ll just sit there and close my eyes, listen and feel the energy, try to feel that communication; what the artist is trying to say to me.”

When Shimabukuro decides to cover a song, he brings his own unique perspective to it.

“A lot of it is playing the tune in a way I’ve never heard anyone else cover it before. I already know that playing it on ukulele will make it drastically different, so I have a big advantage. I want to make it a little bit more thought provoking, take it a step further.

His cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a case in point.

“There are songs that don’t peak but just have a vibe from beginning to end, like ‘Guitar.’ It’s a great song. It starts in a minor key for the verse, then opens in the chorus section. I really wanted to express that and exaggerate it; and yet, I also wanted it a little bit more subtle, like holding a feeling in and allowing the music to bring it out.”

“I received a letter from George Harrison’s widow, who told me that she enjoyed it and that had George lived to hear it, he would have loved it. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

Live As You Wanna Be

Shimabukuro prefers playing live.

“I hate to be in studio, to be honest. It’s like writing a letter to someone versus speaking. Music is about communicating and connecting. When I’m on stage, performing live, I’m comfortable to play and do my thing. I feel more energy, depth. I feed off the energy of the audience.”

When Shimabukuro recently turned 30, he was ready for some new challenges. He ran his first marathon.

“Yeah, I ran the Honolulu Marathon. I really needed to challenge myself physically, before I got too old. One of my friends wanted to do it, so I agreed. It was a great experience. I had never done anything physically challenging; I was mostly terrible at sports growing up. Somehow, I got into this, and it brought about a lot of other changes.”

“I started eating things that were healthier for me, organic foods. I started stretching and doing yoga, and I also understood how important it was to take better care of myself.”

“I think I was in the best shape of my life while I was training for the marathon. I was thinking more clearly than I ever had. When I finished the race, I was left with such a nice of sense of confidence that I know it had a very positive impact on my music and creativity.”

After the marathon, immediately after, Shimabukuro put on a special performance for the other competitors. He laughs about it.

“Yeah, I gave a show at the finish line. I was dying, but it was one of the best feelings I’ve had performing. Maybe it was the runners high; maybe it was just seeing all of my friends and family, and the other runners. It was the best.”

As for his upcoming plans, Shimabukuro expects to spend more time with Buffett.

“I’ve done a Caribbean tour with Jimmy- we played Anguilla. That was rewally a lot of fun, and I’m hoping we can et back there.

Shimabukuro has a strong following in Japan. It would appear that ‘mainlanders’ here in the United States are beginning to awaken to the young ukulele player from Hawaii, his uncommon technical proficiency, and his crossover repertoire.

No Boundaries

Shimabukuro does not accept artificial boundaries that try to hem in what he is doing.

“For musicians that there aren’t limits, it is not about the ‘genre’ you play. The people who sell it are the ones who categorize it. Music is an expression of art reflects the artist. I don’t believe in labels. Music is music, we listen to things, we share and pick up things, and then what we do is create a fusion.

Shimabukuro is living proof. He has toured with Bobby McFerrin, Bela Fleck, Fiona Apple, Diana Krall, Toto, Jimmy Buffett, and Les Paul, among many others.

“In the end, it’s not about what is around you, it’s about what is inside- we’re going to keep on trying to figure this out until the day we die, it’s a journey that goes on forever. Trying to figure out your instrument, and who you are as a person. Even when I die, I’m gonna wish I’d lived another year longer, so I could have kept learning from everyone.”

These days, people mention Shimabukuro in the same breath as Bela Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, Alison Krause and Sam Bush as cutting edge innovators, crossing musical boundaries with impunity and virtually reinventing the instrument they play. Shimabukuro is in some pretty heady company; but it is where he belongs.


Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

Although he has done some scoring for television, Hula Girls is his first major motion picture effort. Point worth noting, is that despite the title, my own initial impression that the movie was going to be some chintzy "Elvis Does Hawaii" knockoff was way, way off base; so off base that I need to publicly apologize for it.

It is a very moving story about a failing coal town in Northern Japan, which, in a last ditch effort to save the town, decides to recreate itself as an Hawaiian style resort destination. They bring in a jaded and cynical retired hula dancer to teach the girls of the village the hula dancing. It is a very poignant story.

And it is well-served by Shimabukuro. Working with a band, or percussionists, solo, or with a vocalist, the soundtrack is evocative and seamless.

They damn well better release this movie in the United States; I want to see if it delivers what Shimabukuro's soundtrack so eloquently promises.

Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

This is like getting a Stocking Stuffer at Thanksgiving. Take one brilliant uke player, ask him to put together a list of songs he loves but hasn't recorded yet, and put out an acoustic EP. Best idea since sliced bread.

Those of you who know Shimabukuro understand he has an adventurous and eclectic repertoire. You won't be surprised to find two Lennon/McCartney tunes (In My Life and Here, There and Everywhere); Led Zep (Going to California); Lauper and Hyman (Time After Time); Arlen and Yarburg (Over the Rainbow); and Sarah McLachlin (Ice Cream).

His ability to find nuances in each of these songs not only makes them memorable, he is able to put his personal stamp on each of them. Few artists have the chops, the sensitivity, and sheer courage to take a song that has been covered by a hundred artists, and make you forget every previous version.

Shimabukuro can do it. This is and absolutely lovely EP.


Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

At some point, Shimabukuro was either going to have to go into the studio and record a solo album, or do a live recording, both of which he was reluctant to do.

Jimmy Buffett producer and guitarist Mac MacAnally managed to coax the reluctant Shimabukuro into a Nashville studio to produce this gem. First he had to convince a skeptical Jake that he could do a solo album.

“For a long time, I avoided doing a solo album. I wanted to do other stuff; I guess I was a little nervous about having people just listening to me. Mac kept telling me that I had to do it, that since I was doing acoustic shows I should really put something out that reflected that part of my work. He talked me into it by agreeing to produce it. I came to Nashville, and we recorded 17 songs in two days."

"Mac was an amazing producer. He has great “ears”—he hears everything, he’s cool, calm and relaxed. In the past, when I’ve recorded, I’ve usually had a single mike on the ukulele; Mac set up about 14 mikes, which allowed me to move around, more like I do onstage, so that I was more comfortable, and what he caught on tape was much more like a live show.”

“And when things would get frustrating, Mac would just smile and say ‘let’s get a bite to eat’. He knows how to record, and he knows how to work with people.”

MacAnally, for his part, also shrugs off the compliments.

“Jake has a great talent. All we did was set the scene to try to capture’ that magic he has when he plays live. I hope we’ve done that.”

The CD contains acoustic versions of many of the songs of his solo shows; the sympathetic miking and clarity of the sound make every subtlety of his performance crystal clear.

After rocketing to public attention through a You-tube take on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," it is nice to see the cut finally appear. The entire CD is really a tour-de-force for Shimabukuro; his instrumental prowess is amply displayed, and entirely consistent with his real-life persona-- humble, and just enjoying the crap out of everything he has been able to do. The man has chops that have chops; but when you talk with him, he'll wave you off, and tell you he has a ways to go yet.

This CD shortens the distance considerably. For sheer breadth of material, from Schubert to Johnny Mercer, Harrison to Chick Corea, it is a very bold statement. For making it happen in such a magical, sustaining way, it is an accomplishment.

His originals are inventive and rhythmic; his interpretation of Schubert's Ave Maria is ethereal and respectful. Finally, his version of the Star Spangled Banner, is so eloquent and understated that it reminds us of what America was, should and still could be.

This CD is a keeper.

Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhike Records

At some point, people will probably stop referring to Shimabukuro as the “Van Halen” or the “Hendrix” of the ukulele. That point will probably happen after listening to “Dragon,” his fourth CD. The instrumental CD is breathtaking in scope, and is a tour de force that exhibits the jaw-dropping skill of Shimabukuro. At 28, he possesses all the confidence and musical wisdom one would expect in a much more seasoned artist. He is clearly evolving into an artist so utterly unique that analogies will lose any power to capture his sound. You just have to hear it for yourself.

“Dragon” features a full palette of self-penned songs that range from the whimsical (‘Me & Shirley T,” a love song to his favorite drink, still; a Shirley Temple) to the title track, which acknowledges another hero of Shimabukuro’s Bruce Lee. The young musician feels that the discipline of the late martial artist has been a major source of inspiration for him; the homage is heartfelt and evocative.

The CD, like Shimabukuro, will not disappoint. He is a major artist evolving with every foray into the studio, growing with every turn on the stage.

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