Jake Shimabukuro celebrates ukulele’s crazy-good fusions
Jake Shimabukuro, 41, returns to the ECA Theater at long last for a celebration of music, and what a little Hawaiian guitar can do in the right hands, Oct. 15 7:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. The Honolulu headliner will perform songs from previous albums, as well as new material in the upcoming Trio with his touring band of two-plus-years, Denver guitarist Dave Preston and bassist Nolan Verner from Nashville.
The 2005 YouTube sensation-turned-international superstar is singlehandedly changing the face of Hawaiian music with his modern pick-ups. He can play anything on his humble four-string, far beyond traditional hula melodies tourists expect when visiting the islands. Unreal fusions that evoke feeling and blow your head off — often, in one focused, tributary tune.
Expect more of his fanciful reinventions, a few twists on old and new themes, and as always, a fun time riffing with his bandmates.
They can’t wait to show audiences a preview of their new album, due out in early 2020. “The three of us sat down and we wrote some new music, came up with some rearrangements. I’m excited about it.”
I feel so alive when I’m onstage.
Trio contains lots of original tunes and about three rearranged pop covers, including Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and a vocal of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” featuring the guitarist’s “phenomenal singer” wife, Rachel James of Dearling.
Shimabukuro is crazy-inventive, whether he’s burning through “Kawika” (“David” in Hawaiian, as in King David Kalakaua) from his 2015 album Travels, or squeezing the blues — yes, the ukulele blues — out of George Harrison’s sad, sad song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” rereleased as a live CD bonus track off the Aug. 29, 2018 recording, The Greatest Day, which Verner and Preston were on.
A 2005 performance of that song took off on YouTube, catapulting a then-27-year-old Shimabukuro straight into the Hall of Fame.
Raised in Honolulu on the ukulele masters, guys like Eddie Kamae, Peter Moon, and Herb Ohta-San, the wunderkind took everything he knew and blew it up. He first learned to play from his ukulele teacher — mom — at age four, then broadened his style by studying his elders, his favorite musicians, and even channeling the energy of a few of his favorite pop culture icons (Bruce Lee, Michael Jordan) into his new world music.
He doesn’t just play notes on a page. He plays whatever he hears and feels on every inch of that ukulele, whatever gets him there.
In person, Shimabukuro is quite possibly the nicest, most humble person you’d ever meet. When comparisons to Jimi Hendrix comes up, he’s quick to demur, “I’m a huge Hendrix fan. I would never ever dare say my name in the same sentence as Jimi Hendrix. I’m honored.”
He’s constantly reinventing his reinventions. Yet, like all great artists, he always believes there’s room for improvement.
“Even songs that I have covered, I wish I could figure out a way to do them justice [laughs],” he explains. “I did a solo ukulele arrangement of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and there’s so much going on in that tune. It’s still evolving, I’m constantly changing things, coming up with different voicings. A lot of times, I’m going, ‘Ah, I don’t know if I should be playing this,’ because it’s not really covering everything. With my abilities, I can’t capture all the things I want to capture that I hear in my head.”
But when he hits the stage, all of that goes away. “For me, it’s more about the celebration of the song, celebrating the artists, the music that I listened to growing up. It’s leaving your ego aside when you walk on there. It’s not about, ‘Hey, look at what I can do!’ but, ‘Hey, let’s just have an awesome experience,’” he muses. “For me, that’s always my focus. It doesn’t matter what song I’m playing or what I’m doing, I’m gonna put everything I have into it.”
The stage is often where a tune really evolves, in real time, in a magical collaboration between Shimabukuro and his bandmates, and the audience, feeding off each other’s energies. He’s lived through some pretty transformative performances. “A lot of times, I don’t execute some of the things that I plan, just because I get so caught up in the moment. But then, there are times that things happen that I didn’t plan that were just magical, and I was like, ah, man, I gotta remember how to do that,” he says, chuckling.
“I feel so alive when I’m onstage. When I’m up there, I get so immersed in the music, the moment. It’s kind of addicting, in a way. I look forward to performing. Definitely a passion of mine.” ✦
Read the full interview While his little guitar gently rocks.