It’s been some years since I got word of a new album from the world’s greatest ukulele player, so I’m pleased to have the chance to review Jake Shimabukuro’s Travels. It’s a big dose of new music, mostly written by the artist himself, opening with a gentle solo piece that establishes the exquisite tone he draws from his Kamaka ukuleles.
His band joins him for the easygoing “Train Ride” and many of the other tracks. “Train Ride,” “Oama,” and the songs at the end of the album betray a tendency toward the easy-listening genre; the music gets listless even as Shimabukuro’s playing remains ever tasteful. And the folky “Everything Is Better With You” is four syrupy and clichéd minutes I wouldn’t mind getting back.
But the cover of War’s classic “Low Rider” doesn’t suffer that way. Yes, it’s “cute,” but it includes a low, gruff vocal from Shimabukuro himself, and fades out over a rollicking rhythm-uke solo. Another effective number is the traditional “Kawika,” which builds from a solo section to a rock jam with one of the CD’s few sequences of musical tension and some of the bracing lightning-quick playing for which the artist has long been known.
In “Travels,” the album’s most interesting and to me most rewarding track, a muted smooth-jazz vibe rides under Spanish guitar-style ukulele passages, which also carry through a free-form avant-jazz interlude.
Continuing the album’s peripatetic theme, Latin dance tropes mingle with jazzy funk on the good-natured “Passport,” and the artist returns to his home state of Hawaii with a sweet, plainspoken solo take on the traditional “Hi’ilawe,” one of my favorite tracks.
Indeed hearing Shimabukuro play unaccompanied has always been a pleasure on pretty much any material he undertakes to put across, originals and covers alike. That holds true on the album’s “Departure” and “Interlude” pieces, and on his cover of the Jackson 5 hit “I’ll Be There,” which lays a few interesting harmonic and rhythmic variations on the old chestnut.
I wouldn’t call Travels a good introduction to the ukulele master, as on much of it he restrains his virtuosity. Still it has a number of pleasant songs and among them, a scatter of gems. Released October 9, it’s available for pre-order now.