Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele – Live – Hitchhike Media HRCD 1109, 68:20 ****:
I first heard Jake Shimabukuro like most people did, through a YouTube video. Jake was sitting by a stream in Central Park, playing a spirited version of George Harrison’s signature tune, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” There was something so touching, authentic and unpretentious about that performance – it stayed with me and like many others, I shared it with friends and helped it go viral. When I received this live album I wondered, could he sustain my interest for an entire solo ukelele concert?
It’s hard to get over the association one has with the ukelele as the instrument of choice when accompanying a warbled rendition of Hawaiian Wedding Song. Or worse, horrifying visions of a campy Tiny Tim screeching out “Tip toe Through the Tulips,” come to mind. But this modest cousin of the guitar was also used to great effect by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole on his classic renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow “and “What a Wonderful World.” And incidentally, George Harrison was a great fan of the ukelele.
It may be surprising to hear the words powerful and passionate in reference to such a diminutive and unassuming instrument, but when I hear this young musician play, I am awed by the commanding and dynamic sounds that pour out of this humble four-stringed box.
Shimabukuro’s new album, “Live” captures the essence of that sound in front of appreciative audiences from New York to Japan. A feat such as a solo ukelele concert could easily dismissed as nothing more than an interesting novelty, but after one gets over the initial shock and disbelief, the intrepid listener is in for a special treat.This live CD reveals Shimabukuro as an affable performer with a charming, casual stage persona and some serious chops. He lays down a varied set ranging from reinterpretations of classic pop songs (such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and a reprise of “While My Guitar”,) a Bach invention, some tantalizing originals, a bit of jazz, a pinch of flamenco and more than a few tunes that altogether defy categorization. He is part of an emerging generation of open-minded musicians whose influences encompass nothing short of the entire known universe of pop, world, classical, folk and jazz. Think of the broad-ranging musical interests of Bill Frisell or Bela Fleck,. Now think how different those artists are from one another. Now think again about the ukelele – you are beginning to get the idea.
Among my favorites in this set is a crisp arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain”, a tune that has been covered many times, but here Jake reinvents the tune, deploying intriguing voicings and high intensity strumming to deliver a fresh and engaging interpretation. His original flamenco-inflected “Let’s Dance” starts off with fiery virtuoso single note lines and lush tremolo passages before it settles into a groove vaguely reminiscent of the Gypsy Kings. Jake is perhaps at his best when he stretches out on one of his quirky originals like,” Wes on Four,” a technical tour de force that first lays down some infectious blues tinged licks, suddenly shifting into some very funky rhythmic passages, only to meander down a few arpeggiated modal back roads before coming back into the funky fast lane for a high octane finish. The CD is peppered with little pieces like “Dragon”, a moody self reflective gem that starts off with a simple ostinato figure and opens up into a strummed interlude, recapitulating into a scintillating coda sparkling with gorgeous harmonics. Moments like this make you forget you are listening to a ukelele – the listener is simply swept up in Jake’s ebullient exploration of new musical frontiers, lost in compelling grooves and the sheer beauty and accessibility of the music.
I have wondered at times if all the fuss would have been made about this artist if he had just been another guitarist. The question is ultimately pointless as Jake Shimabukuro is unquestionably an artist and innovator of the first order. That he has found his voice on an instrument that has been largely overlooked only serves to emphasize his unique accomplishments. At just 33, Shimabukuro is still at the beginning of what could be a long and productive career. He is aiming to occupy a position in that rarified pantheon of innovators that includes Bela Fleck and Bobby McFerrin, artists who stretch the bounds of their instrument’s perceived limitations, artists for whom indeed there are no limitations, only endless expansion and creativity.
— Brian Whistler