I never expected to become a fan of the ukulele.
My only encounter with one involved Stargirl, the eccentric highschooler from the Jerry Spinelli book, who would bring her ukulele to school and sing and play “Happy Birthday” to the other kids during lunch.
So when Jake Shimabukuro’s live album showed up in the mail, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
But clearly I’ve been missing out. Shimabukuro made a name for himself long before this album, with well-known Hawaiian groups Pure Heart and Colon. He’s been the musical guest for Carson Daly and Conan O’Brien (more than once). And this live album now marks the seventh addition to an impressive list of solo releases.
These aren’t the kind of songs you can recognize right off the bat (with the exception of his “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and tragically timely “Thriller” covers, both of which are amazingly well-performed), but Shimabukuro makes each song amiable and catchy with his masterful flare.
This album is difficult to describe. The ukulele has a lighter, tinnier sound than a guitar. It resonates like a steel dream, but Shimabukuro keeps his songs from becoming generic island jams. And you would never guess that a ukulele has a more limited range (with four strings instead of six) from the way he plays it.
A listener’s interest will be piqued before opener “Trapped” comes to a close. Shuimabukuro’s skill is evident within the first minute – this man is something special.
“Piano-Forte” immediately offers a different sound from the ukulele. This number is a slower, light jam that throws a sound quality that is just, well, prettier than any instrumental guitar number I’ve ever heard. Though “Back Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor” keeps this similar, lighter sound, it’s a completely different style of song with a series of racing riffs.
Which is indicative of this whole album. Shimabukuro brings a versatility with his songs that is amazing not only on his instrument, but for a performer in general. The sound and pace of his songs are never replicated within his set.
“Here’s one about being a kid and drinking one too many Shirley Temples” laughs Shimabukuro as he kicks off “Me & Shirley T.” This track has a youthful swagger all its own. The chords have a John Mayer, Eric Hutchinsonesque kind of quality, but Shimabukuro takes the genre and makes it his.
“Five dollars Unleaded” is a slower, softer number, but that underlying buoyancy of the instrument is never lost. Even when the second half of the song takes a somber turn, the sound still resonates in a in a way that a guitar just can’t. What Shimabukuro can do with a ukulele is astounding.
“Wes on Four” has Shimabukuro’s fingers flailing as he sails up and down the neck of the ukulele. If you close your eyes you can see the frenzy of his hands.
“Sakura Sakura” kicks up the Asian feel of his sound with slow, lilting riffs. “Dragon” keeps the smoother feel with sporadic, intricate runs, which followed by the racing, melodic “Yeah.”
Shimabukuro pulls out all the stops on “3rd Stream.” Just when you think the songs couldn’t get any faster, this track kicks up the fevered pitch to an entirely new level. I’ve never been able to handle this kind of racing music without feeling frantic, but Shimabukuro has his instrument totally under control. Riffs that have the potential to be nail-biting become wildly enjoyable.
Encore “Blue Roses Falling (Hanahou)” takes the ukulele back to the light, touching sound of “Piano-Forte.” A strong contrast to the closer, but no less appreciated. No matter how that ukulele sounds, Shimabukuro makes it work.
Like I said, this is a difficult album to describe, and an even more difficult to do justice. It’s the kind of album that works in car, during a Saturday morning cleaning frenzy or for some napping tunes.
If you have any interest in instrumental albums or are just looking for some summer jams, try out Jake Shimabukuro. You won’t be disappointed.