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Jake Shimabukuro: Jake and Friends
by George Graham
(Music Theories Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/1/2021)
Most non-electronic pop music involves a fairly limited number of instruments – the rock band complement of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. For variety, some may bring in some unconventional instruments, usually making cameo appearances. But there are some artists who specialize in those less conventional instruments and bring them front and center, often making a career with them. Many years ago, it was Ian Anderson with his flute in the Jethro Tull Band. Béla Fleck has almost single-handedly elevated the banjo to a position of prominence through virtuosity and a great sense of eclecticism. Similarly, David Grisman and Chris Thile have opened up new horizons on the mandolin. This week, we have a gentlemen who specializes in another small string instrument, and on his new album, shows how versatile he and his instrument are in a series of all-star duets. It’s ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, and his new album is called Jake and Friends.
A native of Hawaii, and a fifth generation Japanese-American, Jake Shimabukuro took up the distinctly Hawaiian instrument at age four and, in growing up with wide-ranging tastes in music, he naturally tried playing what he liked on the uke, saying that he never thought that he could not play what he heard on the ukulele. He started gaining attention in 1998 in Hawaii as a member of the group Pure Heart, which won some awards in the Aloha State. In 2002, he began working with a Japanese-born manager and was signed to the Japanese division of Sony Records, and still tours extensively in Japan. Then in 2006, a video of him performing George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, was posted unbeknownst to him on YouTube where it went viral, He was soon become something of a phenomenon and started getting invitations from well-known musicians. He also composed the music for a Japanese film called Hula Girls. He toured and recorded with Jimmy Buffett, and began recording under his own name in 2011.
Along the way, Shimbukuro added amplification and effects pedals as part of his setup, so he can rock out and shred on his uke. His previous album Trio, which we featured on this album review series, included his electric side. That album reached #1 on the Billboard contemporary jazz albums chart in 2020.
The new album is an impressively wide-ranging collection of collaborations with well-known artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Ziggy Marley, to Jon Anderson of Yes, to Bette Midler, who turns out also to be a Hawaiian native. There are 16 in all, and Shimabukuro definitely demonstrates his versatility with his instrument, which in his hands is chameleon-like, fitting in nicely wherever he takes it, from easy going pop to bluesy jazz-rock fusion, to nostalgic.
The lengthy 78-minute album opens with a duet with a kindred spirit, Hawaiian singer-songwriter Jack Johnson with Paula Fuga, doing a Jack Johnson original called Al Place in the Sun, a song that captures the sunny image of Hawaii. <<>>
That is followed by one of two instrumentals, an original called Sonny Days Ahead featuring blues slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. The contrast between Shimabukuro’s high acoustic uke and Landreth’s very electric guitar is effective. It’s also interesting in that there are no drums on what is outwardly an electric-sounding track. <<>>
One of the more interesting pairings in terms of guest artist and song is Ziggy Marley’s appearance on All You Need Is Love one of three Beatles-related songs on the album. Marley does a great job of reinforcing the tropical aura that Shimabukuro imparts to the song. <<>>
Another of the instrumentals is a duet with bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings in an extended two part original piece called Smokin’ Strings. It starts out in a contemplative mode, <<>> before the “smokin” part with both players in some high-intensity bluegrass. <<>>
Jimmy Buffett makes his appearance on his song Come Monday. It’s a version with just guitar and the ukulele providing the accompaniment. <<>>
Another of the Beatles songs on the album is A Day in the Life with Yes’ Jon Anderson as the guest vocalist. It looks pretty interesting in paper, but it’s not one of the album’s more creative tracks. <<>>
The lengthiest piece on Jake & Friends at over 13 minutes is On the Road to Freedom a tune by the classic rock band 10 Years After, with Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule as the guest on guitar and vocal. Both Haynes and Shimabukuro get a chance to stretch out in this jam for guitar and electric ukulele. <<>>
Willie Nelson makes his appearance on the Hoagy Carmichael classic Stardust, with Shimabukuro’s ukulele as the sole accompaniment. <<>>
And there are eight other collaborative tracks with the likes of Bette Midler, Michael McDonald, doing an early song by the Moody Blues, Vince Gill and Amy Grant doing George Harrison’s Something in the Way She Moves and Kenny Loggins doing an original tune.
Jake Shimabukuro new release Jake and Friends is one of the more ambitious and eclectic albums of guest duets I have seen in quite a while. The 45-year old virtuoso on the instrument long associated with his home state, shows that its four strings, in the proper hands, can fit into and contribute creatively to a wide variety of styles. The guest list on his album is certainly impressive, and almost none of it disappoints, with most of the tracks proving to be quite interesting musically. It’s also notable that many of the performances lack regular drums., often giving a more intimate feel.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” Though it is not clear where the album was recorded, the long-list recording engineers leads one to believe that it was one of those many pandemic-induced virtual projects with the guest artists recording their parts separately. But it comes together well, with the various sonic textures of the uke, both electric and acoustic, well captured.
The ukulele has often been looked down upon from the stereotyped images of old Hawaiian music, or even worse, Tiny Tim’s act. But Jake Shimabukuro has, like Béla Fleck and Chris Thile elevated his seemingly humble instrument into something very impressive.
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