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The Graham Album Review #2017

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Jake Shimabukuaro: Trio
by George Graham

(Music Theories Record as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/4/2020)

Certain musical instruments don’t seem to get a lot of respect, or at least not often outside of narrow genres – such a tuba, an accordion, or even a banjo. But in these days of musical eclecticism, almost every instrument has someone who has been doing interesting things with it. This week, the spotlight is on the ukulele. Most often associated with traditional Hawaiian music, the small four-stringed cousin of the guitar with only about a two octave range, has definitely been the object of stereotypes – usually brought in when the sound of tropical music was being sought, and sometimes in earlier swing-era music, or Tiny Tim singing Tip Toe Through the Tulips. A few singer-songwriters in recent times have used a ukulele, such as Becca Stevens, and there have been a few jazz ukulele players over the years.

But this week, we have a new recording by an artist who has been working on doing for the ukulele what Bela Fleck has done for the banjo – make interesting music well removed from the styles associated with the instrument. It’s Jake Shimabukuro, and his new release is called Trio.

It’s appropriate that Jake Shimabururo is from Hawaii. The Honolulu resident was given his first lesson on the ukulele – or as it is pronounced in the 50th state “oo-koo-LAY-lay” – when he was four years old, from his mother. He fell in love with the instrument and as he grew up, sought to innovate with it, venturing into styles not usually associated with the it, playing classical, rock and jazz-rock fusion. Back in 2006, he became an internet sensation for his version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. His last album featured a Bach two-part invention, and a version of the Michael Jackson hit Thriller.

In recent years, he has been touring with Jimmy Buffett, and has played various festivals in the US, Canada, Australia, and Japan.

The new album is almost all instrumental, with the “Trio” of the title comprising Noel Verner on bass, piano and percussion, and Dave Preston on various guitars and percussion. Shimabukuro plays electric as well as acoustic ukulele, and plays two different sizes of the instrument, a tenor and baritone uke. Shimabukuro went to Nashville to record Trio. It’s notable that the ukulele is not the only string instrument, Dave Preston’s guitars are prominent, usually providing a backdrop. And sometimes the textures are interesting with both a ukulele and an acoustic guitar playing together.

Most of the compositions on the album are originals by the members of the trio, but there are covers of tunes by Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, along with a traditional Hawaiian song. The sound ranges from very electric art-rock or fusion to bluesy with a slide guitar, to spacy and contemplative. The original compositions tend to be structured like rock tunes with fairly simple harmonic progressions and an emphasis on short melodic riffs, while some of the slower tunes can be evocative of the days of New Age music. Most of the thirteen tracks are fairly short, so they are over before one loses interest in it.

Opening is the album’s sort-of art-rock piece, When the Masks Come Down. It’s very electric and gives little hint that it’s being played on a ukulele. But it has a lot of energy and is quite engaging. <<>>

The acoustic ukulele sound is more apparent on the following piece, which is otherwise quite electric. It’s called Twelve and at times the ukulele can resemble a sound of a harp. <<>>

For me one of the best tracks showing off the instrument in an interesting sonic context is called Lament, in which Shimabukuro’s electric and acoustic ukes are joined by an atmospheric setting with electric slide guitars. <<>>

The smaller guitars used in flamenco music are about in the same range as the ukulele, so a track called Red Crystal shows some flamenco influence and the result is also a highlight of the album. <<>>

A nice combination of folky acoustic guitar and the ukulele comes on a piece called Summer Rain. It makes for a pleasing sonic blend. <<>>

The one traditional Hawaiian tune on the album Wai’alae, is given an upbeat performance, with a little steel guitar, another trademark Hawaiian instrument. <<>>

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is done in an atmospheric setting with the ukulele assuming its more traditional sound. <<>>

Another interesting piece is the original called Fireflies which put the ukulele into a bluesy setting with Dave Preston’s acoustic slide guitar. <<>>

The album ends with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, with a vocal by Rachel James. The track is pleasant but pretty lightweight musically. <<>>

Trio the new album by eclectic Hawaiian ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro is an enjoyable and creative album which explores the possibilities of his instrument and tends to explode stereotypes associated with it. At times, it doesn’t sound very much like a ukulele, especially when Shumabukuro uses an electric uke and cranks it up. But the sounds are wide-ranging on the album, from very electric rock to folk to new agey to light instrumental pop. The result is an engaging record that keeps things interesting sonically. While the compositions may not be on the level of sophistication as some jazz-rock fusion or art rock, the pieces are succinct enough that it doesn’t drag or waste time on noodling.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” There is good clarity and ambiance effects are used well. The recording effectively shows off the experimentation with the instrument, capturing Shimabukuro’s range of sounds from harp-like to shredding metal guitar.

As Bela Fleck has done with the banjo, Jake Shimabukuro has taken his ukulele into some interesting new realms, and his new album is a great example.

(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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