STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
Had it not been for the advent of YouTube, the world may have never heard of Hawaiian ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro.
Filmed in 2006 while playing a virtuosic rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for a New York TV show, a video of Shimabukuro’s performance was posted on YouTube and went viral. After receiving more than 13 million views, Shimabukuro became an overnight global sensation. A decade later, he is synonymous with the ukulele.
His 2016 release, “Jake Shimabukuro: Live In Japan,” is a double CD 15 song collection of original compositions and cover songs that exemplifies the creative diversity of this amazing artist. Backed by Nolan Verner (bass) and Michael Grande (keyboards), Shimabukuro delivers a flawless performance abundant with the energy, passion and fan interaction that has become his signature stage show.
“This year marked the 15th anniversary of my debut in Japan,” recalls Shimabukuro, while on tour in Nashville, Tennessee. “I thought it would be kind of cool to release an in-Japan live record just to recognize that. My shows are so different in Japan than in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. I think it was cool for people outside Japan to get a sense of what the vibe and energy is like when we do play Japan. The audience will clap along. I speak in Japanese. It’s just a whole different side of me of that I hoped would be interesting and a bit comical for people who’ve never been to a show in Japan.”
“The bass player, Norman Belford, and I have been playing together for over a year,” adds Shimabukuro. “He’s a fine musician and a wonderful cat to play with. Just for the Japan show I had a buddy of mine, who is from Hawaii. His name is Michael Grande and he plays keyboards.
This is the first time that I played in this configuration. Normally if I do a trio it’s with bass and drums. This is the first time that I didn’t use drums, and I just went bass and keys. I think it worked out nicely. I really enjoyed the sound and the subtle texture that the keyboard could add to what the bass and ukulele were doing.”
“You definitely feel like you’re there,” says Shimabukuro regarding the CD. “We didn’t do any editing to the music. It was hard, because a lot of times you want to go back and tweak things or think ‘I wish I had done this instead.’ I learned that, once you start changing that, you might fix the timing of something, but then there’s something that gets lost that’s more crucial than just playing a chord or something not lining up that just adds to the feel and element of a live album. I really just had to tie my hands behind my back and not change anything. I’m glad I did, because now going back and listening to it I’m glad we didn’t touch things because it just feels good. We left the audience mics a little hotter than the mix so that you can get a sense of the energy from the audience. When I listen to it, I feel like I’m back in Japan playing. It really did, I think, capture the ambience and the energy and the vibe of the performance. I’m really happy with it.”
A hit dating back to the late 90’s in his home land of Hawaii and in Japan, Shimabukuro’s ability to combine elements of jazz, blues, funk, rock, bluegrass, classical, folk, and flamenco resonated with fans, elevating his popularity and the appreciation for the ukulele to unforeseen heights.
The exposure he received from his “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” video accelerated demand for Shimabukuro as a concert draw. Offers to collaborate creatively came from Cyndi Lauper, Bela Fleck, Jimmy Buffett and Yo-Yo Ma, among others.
Signed to Sony Records (Japan), Shimabukuro subsequently formed his own label in 2002 (Hitchhike Records) to expand his distribution beyond Japan and Hawaii. His solo works include “Sunday Morning” (2002), “Crosscurrent” (2003), “Walking Down Rainhill” (2004), “Dragon” (2005), “Gently Weeps” (2006), “Live” (2009) and “Peace Love Ukulele” (2011), which reached Number 1 on Billboard’s Top World Music list.
Shimabukuro is the recipient of multiple Hawaii Music, Na Hoku Hanohano and Billboard Magazine Awards for “Album of the Year” and “Entertainer of the Year.”
The subject of the 2012 award winning documentary “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings,” Shimabukuro’s passion for his instrument finds him routinely striving to expand his creativity.
“You develop this relationship with your instrument,” say Shimabukuro. “I love sitting with the instrument, looking at it and saying, ‘How can I make this sound better?”’ Trying different things, that’s what I love. I figure out what I can add to the music. I think, ‘what can I contribute with my sound and my instrument?’ That’s why I love playing different genres.”
“Playing the ukulele has always brought me so much joy,” adds Shimabukuro. “I love problem solving. That’s how I look at my approach to the ukulele. Every time I come across a difficult piece of music, it’s a problem. How am I going to solve this? Whether I’m tackling a concerto or Bohemian Rhapsody or a jazz standard, how am I going to make this work on the ukulele? What do I have to do? I love breaking things down. You take things step-by-step, focusing on one measure at a time, and figure out the best way to play it. It’s like the Holy Grail. You keep searching and searching. It’s something I’ll probably never be satisfied with, but the whole process is fun and inspiring.”