Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro pulls together an all-star list of talent for his new album
By Steven Mark
Nov 14, 2021
You know you’ve arrived when you can cold-call Willie Nelson with a request to do a song together. Even more when he agrees and winds up propelling your project to stratospheric heights.
That’s what happened when ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro decided to do an album of collaborations with other top musicians. Nelson was the first artist that Shimabukuro’s friend Ray Benson of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel contacted to do a song, and “two months later, we were in the studio recording ‘Stardust,’?” Shimabukuro said in a phone call during a tour stop in California. “Once that was done, then it gave the project a lot of momentum and credibility.”
A-List Of Pop Musicians Guests On ‘Jake And Friends’
The resulting album, “Jake & Friends,” which was released Friday, features an A-list of pop musicians, many of them performing some of their signature songs. Along with Nelson, whose 1978 album “Stardust” transcended his “outlaw” reputation and earned him broad-based respect, the album includes Bette Midler singing “The Rose” from her 1979 Academy Award-nominated film; blues-rocker Jesse Colin Young, delivering his Summer of Love anthem “Get Together;” and Jimmy Buffett, performing his first Top 40 hit “Come Monday.”
Other artists include reggae royalty Ziggy Marley and Jon Anderson, lead singer for the progressive rock band Yes, both of whom turned to the Beatles for their contributions, with Marley doing “All You Need Is Love” and Anderson singing a joyful “A Day in the Life.” Both artists sing those songs regularly in concerts, but country star Vince Gill had a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, turning the Beatles’ “Something” into a duet with his wife, Amy Grant. “I’d never thought of it as a duet,” Shimabukuro said, “and the way they do it, oh man, it’s just unbelievable.”
Song Choices Made By Each Artist
Shimabukuro left the song choices up to his guests to make the project easier for them. “I wanted them to choose the song, something that they would be familiar with already, and then I could work around that, whatever key they sang it in,” he said. “I was surprised that we wound up with multiple Beatles songs on this.”
Fans of Shimabukuro’s supersonic speed-strumming will not be disappointed, as he duels it out with bluegrass rocker Billy Strings in a new tune “Smokin’ Strings” and joins Warren Haynes, longtime guitarist with Southern rockers the Allman Brothers Band, in “On the Road to Freedom.” Virtuoso slide guitarist Sonny Landreth also contributed a new instrumental work “Sonny Days Ahead,” a Grateful Dead-like jam.
While many of the artists have Hawaii connections — Midler was born here, Nelson has a place on Maui, Buffett had a restaurant in Waikiki, Young has farmed coffee on Hawaii island for decades and Anderson regularly vacations here — there’s also a contemporary Hawaii voice to the album in the opening track, the appropriately named “A Place in the Sun,” performed by Jack Johnson and Paula Fuga.
The Project Started 4 Years Ago With All Songs Recorded In Full
With the timing of the release and its overall good vibes, the album might mistakenly be seen as a pandemic project, conceived as COVID-19 spread and produced remotely. In fact, the project started nearly four years ago when Nelson and Shimabukuro recorded “Stardust.” A dozen more tracks were recorded in California, Texas and Nashville, Tenn., as well as Hawaii. Only three of the 16 tracks were created using remote technology.
In addition, the tracks were recorded in continuous “full takes,” Shimabukuro said. “We didn’t splice it, take this (part) from the first take and take this part from the third take. We wanted to just kind of like go old-school, and actually play the song.”
That approach worked wonders for “Smokin’ Strings.” Shimabukuro had a few chord progressions in mind for the piece, and as he and collaborator Billy Strings started to jam, the tune spontaneously transformed into a flurry of flying fingers. Sound engineer Michael Grande recorded the session, but they wanted to refine the tune. They then recorded it two more times and were about to do a third when Grande suggested listening to their practice session.
“And so we went into the control room and we were like, ‘This is great! Let’s keep this one!’?” Shimabukuro said. “It just reminded me that when you’re not overthinking it, and just going for it and having fun, that’s when the best things happen.”
Willie Nelson Was A Particularly Challenging Recording
Recording with so many top artists left Shimabukuro with a treasure chest of indelible memories. Nelson’s session was particularly challenging because he chose to sing solo, sans guitar, with Shimabukuro’s ukulele as the sole accompaniment. Shimabukuro didn’t know that until the night before the recording, the first time he met Nelson in person.
“It was just going to be me and he was going to sing, so then I got really nervous,” Shimabukuro said with a laugh. “He has such a unique way of phrasing. Sometimes he sings way behind the beat, sometimes he’ll sing way ahead.
“A lot of it was just kind of really watching him and staying with him. The thing is, he’s so aware of where he is (in the music) at all times. It’s kind of like he IS the music.”
Midler Happily Chose Her Song For A Good Reason
Midler, with whom Shimabukuro performed for Queen Elizabeth II in 2009, happily performed “The Rose” upon hearing that it was an “all-time” favorite of Shimabukuro’s mother. He told Midler that she “would sing it to me as a kid.”
“(Midler) goes, ‘Are you kidding me? Well, we have to record that then,’?” he said. “After we recorded that track, I brought the rough mix home and I just casually told my mom, ‘This is something we recorded.’ It starts with the ukulele … and then the voice comes in, and my mom perks up and says, ‘Who’s that singing?’ I told her Bette Midler, and she was like, ‘No, really?’?”
Jesse Colin Young Has Been A Fan Since Jake’s Coffee Bar
The guest artists were equally enthralled to be playing with Shimabukuro. Jesse Colin Young, who came to admire Shimabukuro’s ukulele playing after hearing him perform in coffee shops around the islands, was impressed with Shimabukuro’s combination of craft, creativity and curiosity on the uke, calling him “master, but with a beginner’s mind, and also a beginner’s heart.”
“He has no blown-up ego, nothing’s jaded, nothing like that,” Young said. “He comes to (music) in a very childlike way, and you hear him discovering it. He goes to that magical Jake place, and you get the feeling he’s discovering it himself for the first time.”
Young still remembers the first time he heard “Get Together” being performed at an open mic at the Cafe Au Go Go nightclub in New York City. “I knew that my life had changed,” said Young, who has relocated to the mainland to be with his wife’s family. “The path I would take had just opened to me.”
Two years ago, Young coincidentally was in Washington, D.C., at the same time that Shimabukuro was performing there and arranged to play “Get Together” as an encore. “It was magic,” he said. This recording came so easily they didn’t even need to rehearse. “I just warmed up my voice at home and we did it,” he said.
Kenny Loggins Happened To Be A Long Time Admirer
Kenny Loggins, a favorite in Hawaii since his days with Loggins and Messina, joined Shimabukuro for a rendition of “Why Not?”, a peppy upbeat tune that Loggins wrote with Georgia Middleman and Gary Burr for their band Blue Sky Riders, which they hoped to get on the radio. It turned out to be a perfect fit for ukulele.
“We wrote it on mandolin, which is tuned the same as the ukulele, so I thought it would go to ukulele really well,” Loggins said. “We knew right away it was going to work. It’s right up his alley as a player — just about everything is.”
Loggins produced the track as well, using acoustic instruments as backup, so it is exactly the way he envisioned it. “It’s really a fun tune, and I wanted to keep it woody and earthy,” he said. “I wanted to keep it as real sounding as possible, not techy in any way.”
Loggins has been an admirer of Shimabukuro’s for some time, especially after seeing a Ted Talk in which Shimabukuro performed in a number of styles and genres. “It seems like he can do anything he wants to on that instrument,” he said. “That’s why he’s so groundbreaking.”
Jon Anderson Joined After Seeing Jake’s Viral Video
Jon Anderson, like most people, first came to know Shimabukuro’s music from his famous “My Guitar Gently Weeps” video, but also shares a public relations agent with him. He himself plays ukulele and performs “A Day in the Life” on his own concert tours. The song was one of the three tracks to be done remotely — Anderson sent Shimabukuro a recording of him singing it, telling him “if you can do it in that key, fine.”
Shimabukuro sent him back the musical track, and he re-recorded the song in one afternoon, finding that his high tenor, which he keeps in shape by singing every day, was a perfect match for Shimabukuro’s sweet ukulele playing. “I can’t wait for people to hear it,” he said.
Though Anderson hasn’t performed in person with Shimabukuro yet, he’s seen him in concert before, calling it “wonderful.”
“It was very mystical and magical all at the same time,” he said. “He captivates the audience.”