James Ross Kiefer
Redefining the image of a musical instrument isn’t a task that can be undertaken easily. It requires breaking down preconceived notions of what an instrument can and can’t do, as well as exploring new genres with that instrument. The ukulele typically doesn’t incur the thought of someone playing incredibly technical solos, doing concertos or playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But Jake Shimabukuro has made it his mission in life to reinvent the ukulele.
Shimabukuro visited the Carolina Theater of Greensboro recently, and I was fortunate enough to see his performance. A modern virtuoso of his instrument, Jake has definitely come a long way from his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Picking up the ukulele at age four, Shimabukuro found his inspiration to learn after the instrument after watching his mother play. “My mom played, and I kept bugging her to teach me,” Jake explained. “So one day we sat down on the floor and she put her old Kamaka ukulele in my hands. I remember being so nervous. Then she showed me how to strum the strings and taught me my first chord. I fell in love with the ukulele immediately. From that day on, you had to pry the instrument away from me in order to get me to do anything else.”
Even though he explored other instruments such as the drums and piano, Shimabukuro kept returning to the ukulele. He drew influences from legendary ukulele players such as Peter Moon, but also rock icons such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. He even drew inspiration from athletes, like Bruce Lee, due to their strong work ethic and focus.
Getting to see Jake perform live proved to be quite the unique experience. Electric bassist and North Carolina native Nolan Verner, accompanied Shimabukuro. This definitely helped to round out the sound, as the bass gave a nice contrast to the ukuleles naturally high timbre.
The set balanced a nice mix of original material and covers, although each song gave an excellent display of Shimabukuro’s skill. One of the first song’s of the set was ‘Red Eye”, which was inspired by reggae music. This laid back tune really showcased Jake’s sense for melody, and also showed the range of genres he is capable of playing.
“F Minor” was a tune that channeled some elements of classic progressive rock. It starts with the ukulele outlining arpeggios, which eventually builds into a more tender section of Jake soloing over some dissonant chords. As the song progresses each thematic motif becomes more rhythmically angular and kind of plays around beat placement. “Celtic Tune” was another song that showed Jake’s ability to crossover between genres. The opening figure sounded like something out of Irish fiddle music. It was light and jovial, but felt very centered by Nolan playing open fifths on the bass, giving it a wide undertone.
As a display of raw skill Jake played an excerpt from Byron Yasui’s Ukulele Concerto. Originally a collaboration between Shimabukuro and Yasui, it was intended to be played with a ukelele and symphony orchestra. They played an excerpt from the first movement which was composed around the musical interval of tritone, which is one of the more dissonant, or unpleasant sounding, intervals in western music. Exploring the entire range of the instrument, the work was written in such a way where it eased the listener into the dissonant, almost to the point of making the interval feel pleasing.
Shimabukuro also treated the audience with a solo set that highlighted his pop sensibilities. The middle of his set consisted of a medley of various pop songs he had covered over the years. He started the medley with “Over the Rainbow” with very gentle phrasing, making each note almost a personal moment. This morphed into “What a Wonderful World”, as made famous by Louis Armstrong, and the song felt very well suited for the timbre of the ukulele. The next transition was into composer Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and the lilting style that Jake played with made for a very moving rendition of the piece. After this he moved onto the Beatles “In My Life”, which is always comes off as remarkably tender, and then near the end of medley he played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, leaving the crowd emotionally saturated.
After the medley ended, Nolan joined Shimabukuro on stage. Together they performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety. Nailing everyone of Freddie Mercury’s ornate vocal harmonies, and hitting each note of the intricate guitar solos, the duo played with great passion and vigour. It was loud and bombastic, but still intimate and smooth.
They ended the concert with “Kawika”, which is a Hawaiian traditional and Jake explained to the crowd that it was one of the first songs he ever learned how to play on the ukulele. They were greeted by a roaring applause and well deserved standing ovation.
The most apparent part of watching Jake play was seeing how passionate he was. For every song he performed there was a massive grin on his face. It was evident in his playing how much he was enjoying himself, each strum of the ukulele was filled with energy, and every solo he took carried the weight of his joy. After his performance he only had this to say, “The audience was so appreciative and I had a great time. Aloha.” It was truly and wonder and a privilege to see such a modern virtuoso.