Update: Jake And The Uke

AT THE ADMIRAL: Jake Shimabukuro Building a Big Fan Base for the Little Ukulele

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jake Shimabukuro said he’s heartened by the worldwide growth in popularity of his instrument, the ukulele.

It doesn’t seem to occur to him – owing either to lack of hubris or abundance of humility on his part – that he might be a major player in that growth.

“There’s so many people getting turned on to the instrument, I’m blown away by it,” Shimabukuro said during a phone interview last week from his Hawaii home. “I was just listening to his new song by Train. It’s like the No. 1 song in the country, and the whole song is ukulele-driven.”

Shimabukuro – who comes back for a three-peat performance at the Admiral Theatre on March 13 after visiting previously in 2006 and 2007 – cited that kind of exposure for the fact that he’s become perhaps the busiest ukulele player in the world. He doesn’t, however, give himself any credit for making the uke cool enough to make a band like Train work a song around it.

He just seems perfectly happy that the little instrument has found its way into the musical consciousness of so many.

“The ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-LAY-lay) makes people happy, I really believe that,” he said. “If more people played and listened to ukulele music, the world would be a better, happier place.”

Shimabukuro certainly is doing his part. From a humble start, playing traditional Hawaiian music on his native islands, he’s built a flourishing career on four strings and two octaves, and the endless variations and possibilities he’s been able to find therein.

He’s tested the limits of the little instrument, and found it virtually limitless.

As people’s acceptance of and affection for the ukulele has increased, so has Shimabukuro’s workload. He’s in demand as a concert attraction, recording artist, collaborator and general ambassador for the uke.

In recent months, Shimabukuro, 33, has released a live CD, a two-song mini-EP “Annon” – created to help commemorate the 750th memorial service of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism – and taken part in documentary filmmaker Mike Lawrence’s “Bach and Friends” DVD project, appearing alongside musical luminaries from Hilary Hahn, Philip Glass, the Emerson String Quartet, Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Manuel Barrueco and others in a celebration of the music of J.S. Bach. He also performed with Bette Midler in a London concert last December attended by, among others, Queen Elizabeth.

In all his spare time, he’s been busy composing and arranging and recording his next, and as-yet untitled, studio CD.

“I’ve really been focusing on the album, which is pretty much all originals,” Shimabukuro said. He added that the lone cover on the CD will be a solo instrumental version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Shimabukuro said the new songs came out of his head largely during sessions spent simply commuting with nature on his beloved Hawaii, and even during “hot yoga” (in a sauna) sessions.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever written this way, completely without my instrument,” he said. “I’m really focusing on layering some ukulele parts on this album. When I perform, I hear the other parts in my head, and I look at this as a way to give people some insight ito what I’m hearing.

“It’s a different approach for me,” he said thoughtfully, “and now it’s like the song feels complete.”

Shimabukuro said his was “floored” when Lawrence contacted him about being part of the “Bach and Friends” project.

“The first question he asked me was, ”˜Do you play any Bach?’ I mean, I don’t really, maybe I hint at some of the Bach themes a little, but I’ve never seriously transcribed anything. He asked me if I’d be willing. All the time I’m wondering why he would want me in the first place.

The lovely and eloquent answer to that question is Shimabukuro’s arrangement and performance of Bach’s two-part invention No. 4, portions of which are seen during an interview segment with him (the full performance is included on a bonus DVD).

“I went through every note, figuring out how to translate it onto the uke,” Shimabukuro said of the typically intricate and taxing piece. “Once I got going, it was so immediate – it was like the fingerings started to light up on the fretboard. It was almost like it was written for the uke. Other people have since told me they’ve had similar experiences with Bach.”

Being the in-demand performer that he is takes Shimabukuro in some interesting and eclectic directions. This spring and summer, besides a European tour that’ll take him to Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and France, he’ll play the prestigious Monterey and Playboy jazz festivals.

“In the last few years, I’ve been able to do festivals from performing arts to bluegrass, jazz, folk, even rock, like Bonnaroo. It really blows my mind to get to play with all those great people, and the crowds are always so nice and accepting.”

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