Ukulele Maestro Shimabukuro Surges through NorCal


Jake Shimabukuro (left) and Nolan Verner perform at the Bing Concert Hall in Stanford, California, on Dec. 8.

(Photo: Harrison Truong)

When Jake Shimabukuro triumphantly entered Bing Concert Hall in Stanford, California, on Dec. 8, he flashed an easy smile and a “hang 10” hand gesture to the near-capacity crowd. The ukulele phenomenon had taken both a traditional and brazenly 21st-century path to get there.

Over the past 10 years, the affable 40-year old Honolulu native has built up a grass roots fan base the old-fashioned way: through first playing clubs and festivals and later headlining theaters and performing arts centers. The Dec. 8 concert on the Stanford campus was produced by the university’s Stanford Live organization and put Shimabukuro in the company of global chamber-pop stylists Pink Martini and the lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.

The modern way in which Shimabukuro grew his international audience was through YouTube. Shimabukuro’s solo recording of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was uploaded in April 2006 and has since been viewed over 15 millions times. His TED Talk from January 2010, in which he performs a solo ukulele version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has received over 7 million views.

In the tradition of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and banjoist Béla Fleck, Shimabukuro has expanded (and popularized) the general perception of an instrument’s capacity and role. Previously associated with Hawaiian luaus and rhythmic support, the four-stringed ukulele is transformed into a lead instrument through Shimabukuro’s skilled single-note articulation and sometimes his utilization of basic guitar effects.

With a stylistic open-mindedness, the 2010 Grammy winner for Crossover Classical Album is comfortable with many genres. He’s collaborated with the likes of Fleck, singe-songwriter Jimmy Buffett and Bette Midler.

As with The Bad Plus, Shimabukuro was best known for his imaginative interpretation of contemporary pop songs—such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” But as with that energetic piano trio, Shimabukuro’s own compositions are starting to feature more prominently in his live shows, much to the delight of his veteran audiences.

Of 17 numbers he performed at the Bing Concert Hall on Dec. 8, all but five were Shimabukuro originals. Versions of a half dozen of those—including openers “Galloping Seahorses and “Me & Shirley T”—can be found on his latest album, Nashville Sessions (released in late September on his own JS Records label).

For at least a couple of years, after having established himself as a solo performer, Shimabukuro has been touring with bass guitarist Nolan Verner. Verner’s relaxed style is never too busy, and pairs nicely with Shimabukuro’s virtuosic technique. On occasion, the bassist ratchets up the harmonic tension.

On “Galloping Seahorses,” Shimabukuro seemed to mimic both the titular subject and the notion of the “dancing flea” (the literal translation of the word ukulele from the original Hawaiian language). He strummed intensely and demonstrably while Verner laid down a dependable bassline with a couple of flourishes. For “Me And Shirley T,” Shimabukuro started unaccompanied, his body turned toward stage left in this six-sided vineyard-style venue. Later, he showed off his dexterity with a solo that incorporates a speedy single-note run.

A skilled entertainer, Shimabukuro’s sincere and often humorous and self-effacing in-concert banter is part of his appeal as a live act. His sentiment is thoughtful and never overtly political, though his introduction to his piece “Go For Broke” gave it extra poignancy given today’s national climate.

He explained that growing up in Hawaii, he learned about the stateside Japanese internment camps during World War II and also the Japanese-American 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Infantry Regiment, members of which fought with distinction abroad as their family members remained in detention camps on American soil.

Titled after a battle cry of Hawaiian soldiers, he dedicated “Go For Broke” to not only Japanese-American veterans but also to all other past and current ones.

Striking a military-type rhythm against his strings, he started this noble battle hymn unaccompanied as a solemn march. It concluded, effectively, with a quote from “Taps.”

“Tritone” is based on the first movement of Dr. Byron Yasui’s Ukulele Concerto, explained Shimabukuro, who was the soloist when the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra premiered the composition in May 2015, and also when the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra programmed it six months later. Verner seemed to be interpreting the role of the string section in this adaptation, while Shimabukuro’s angular arpeggios still managed to glide.

Returning to his solo roots about two-thirds of the way through the 100-minute set, Shimabukuro launched into a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—another touching selection, given the poet/troubadour’s recent passing. The familiar melody became a 10-minute-plus medley that fluidly included The Beatles’ “In My Life” and “Eleanor Rigby”; “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”’ “Misty”’; “What A Wonderful World” (including a couple of lines sung Satchmo style); and “Ave Maria.”

Joined again by Verner, Shimabukuro also acknowledged his past by returning to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” before concluding with a surf-rockin’ encore of the up-tempo Sunday Manoa classic “Kawika.” DB

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