It's been difficult for me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument ever since I saw Tiny Tim squeak his way through "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" in his annoying falsetto. To be perfectly honest, up until a few years ago I did my best to avoid anything remotely connected to the instrument because of that association. I first started to overcome my prejudice while listening to the multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Bob Brozman and learning that the instrument was capable of doing much more than I had originally thought.
However, it's only now that I've listened to Jake Shimabukuro's forthcoming release, Jake Shimabukuro Live (April 14, 2009 on Hitchhike Records), that I've truly come to appreciate the ukulele. After listening to Jake play you can't believe that he's playing something with only four strings. There are plenty of six-string guitar players out there who would be hard pressed to do what's he's capable of doing with four.
The nearly 20 tracks on Live range from Shimabukuro's interpretation of classical pieces to his renditions of such pop classics as "Thriller" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." What's truly amazing about the show he puts on is that he holds your attention as a completely solo act; there's no band, nor orchestra, and nothing on tape backing him up. It's just Jake and his ukulele.
The ukulele is a four-string, two-octave instrument, making you think that it must be extremely limited as to the sounds that it produces. Not so, if you're a performer like Shimabukuro. He's able to squeeze sounds out of his instrument that will have you swearing he's playing a regular guitar. There's none of the "plink-plink" sound one would normally expect from a high pitched instrument like the uke, nor does he use it simply to keep rhythm by strumming a few chords. Instead he's turned it into a lead instrument that rivals the mandolin for its intricacy, and the guitar for its diversity of sound.
Although the first thing you're bound to notice when listening to Jake Shimabukuro is the speed at which he plays, what impressed me the most was that unlike other technically proficient players he also plays with a lot of emotion. Even though it seems like his fingers are flying almost all the time, either up and down the fretboard or picking, he doesn't neglect the emotional content of his material. Certainly his cover of something like "Thriller" is primarily an example of technical prowess. However, his performance of Bachs Two-Part Invention In D-Minor makes you forget what instrument he is playing, as the beauty of the music is the focus, not his talent or his technique.
Listen carefully to the song that made him famous, his cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and you'll soon find that you're again forgetting about the instrument he's playing and becoming wrapped up in the music instead. While it's a little strange at first to hear the song being played as an instrumental, eventually you begin to hear the lyrics being "sung" in his playing. As the notes are picked to form the tune that is so very familiar, the melody comes to life with such passion and love that you soon forget it's not being sung. I've heard many attempts to play instrumental versions of pop songs, especially ones by the Beatles, but this is the first time I've heard one that manages to capture the spirit of the original song.
It's not just classical music and pop songs on which he brings his remarkable talents to bear, either, for one of the earlier tracks on the disc is a cover of the Chick Corea tune "Spain". Now I was never much of a fan of Chick Corea's music when played by him, as it ran much too far in the direction of pop music (rather than jazz) for my taste. Hearing Shimabukuro playing the piece gave it a dimension that it lacked before, and I found myself appreciating the song more than I ever did when it was performed by the composer.
Part of that might have been the novelty of hearing the song being played on ukulele, but if that were all there was to it, I would have lost interest after only a short while. While it might have been the instrument that captured my attention in the first place, it was Shimabukuro's ability to breath life into the music that held it for the entire length of the piece. There's something about how he plays, perhaps it has to do with a deftness of touch or the precision with which he plays each note, that allows you to hear and feel each note no matter how fast he's playing, which pulls you into the piece and holds you fast until its completed.
Listening to track fourteen, "Sakura Sakura", a traditional Japanese folk song that's normally played on the thirteen-string Japanese instrument known as a koto, you really appreciate that ability. It's one of the slower songs on the disc, and somehow he makes each note ring as if far more strings were involved than just the four at his disposal. Each note is allowed to resonate to maximum effect before he strikes the next one, allowing the listener to feel it completely. There's an intensity to the performance that almost makes it unbearable, so in some ways you're relieved when the song ends because each note is so beautiful that you quickly become overwhelmed by them.
To many people the ukulele is a novelty instrument and not to be taken seriously. However, when you hear Jake Shimabukuro play you're quickly disabused of that notion. In his hands it's comparable to any stringed instrument, whether bowed or plucked, and capable of playing any genre of music. Jake Shimabukuro is an amazing musician who is not only technically skilled, but able to plumb the emotional depths of any piece of music he attempts. This is a magnificent recording by an amazing performer, which shouldn't be missed by anybody who genuinely appreciates great music.