There may be no better match in contemporary music than the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele,” Jake Shimabukuro, and the never-waste-a-note guitarist Billy Strings, one of the “Friends” on Shimabukuro’s new album, Jake & Friends. Their song, “Smokin’ Strings,” opens with a gently unfurling suite of ukulele and guitar notes that slither and weave around each other. Halfway through the tune, just when we think it’s drawing to a close, Strings unspools a briskly propulsive lead run, galloping off as Shimabukuro strums fiercely underneath; it’s off to the races with the two musicians playing off each other in a call and response and challenging each other to match notes in a dizzying, whirling bluegrass dash.
“Smokin’ Strings” may be the highlight of these sterling collaborations between Shimabukuro and friends, but every song on the album is a gem. Over the past two years, Shimabukuro has gathered with musicians — including Ray Benson & Asleep at the Wheel, Jimmy Buffett, and Bette Midler, among others — to stretch out on covers and originals. The album opens with Shimabukuro’s bright, shimmering ukulele strums, laying down a crisp and brilliant foundation for Jack Johnson and Paula Fuga’s vocals on the pop music chestnut “A Place in the Sun.” Sonny Landreth’s snaky slide guitar echoes off Shimabukuro’s ukulele in the mellow blues jazz “A Sonny Day Ahead,” a Shimabukuro original that features a bridge in which blues rock and space jazz float around each other.
Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes joins Shimabukuro on a jammy take on Alvin Lee and Mylon LeFevre’s classic “On the Road to Freedom,” which features a haunting introduction followed by a rousing rendition of the original, while Kenny Loggins jubilantly sings the jaunty “Why Not,” penned by Loggins and Nashville favorites Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman.
The most gorgeous song on the album is Shimabukuro’s sparkling take on “Something,” featuring emotional vocals by Vince Gill and Amy Grant. Shimabukuro turn in a soulful version of Midler’s hit “The Rose” that features Midler’s vocals (and this version far outstrips the beauty of the original), and the album closes with Shimabukuro and Jesse Colin Young illustrating the unity that Young yearns for on the Youngbloods’ song “Get Together.”
Every song on Jake & Friends features exquisite musicianship and warm vocals; Shimabukuro carries us across the universe of music here, from bluegrass and classical to jazz and rock, never missing a beat and celebrating the sheer joy of making beautiful music with friends.