Ukulele Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Blossoms from Hawaiian Roots and Hearing Béla Fleck
Jake Shimabukuro’s newest album, Nashville Sessions, may have opened the ukulele wizard’s creative floodgates.
Nashville Sessions, released in late September, was his first recording with all original songs, and he aims to compose a lot more original ones in the future.
“I had so much fun recording Nashville Sessions,” he tells me. “In the past, I never had the confidence to write my own songs, so I relied heavily on covers for performance and recording material. Of course, I still love arranging other people’s songs, but it’s also fun to create something completely from scratch.
“The goal with Nashville Sessions was to capture the energy of our live show in a studio environment. I have a tendency to overthink my playing when I’m in a recording session. However, in concert, I feel very free, and my execution of songs seems more spontaneous.”
Though Shimabukuro has performed extensively, he says he has attended few concerts of other artists.
“I haven’t been to many concerts,” he says. “However, I did get to see Chick Corea and Béla Fleck perform together at the Blue Note in Tokyo, Japan, about eight years ago. It was a phenomenal collaboration. It was incredible to see how each adapted to the other’s tunes and musical style.”
Touring with Fleck and the Flecktones was “one of the most thrilling experiences” of Shimabukuro’s career.
“They are all such gifted musicians,” he recalls. “Trading licks with Béla and Victor Wooten were probably the most intimidating moments I ever had on stage. And they are the nicest people. Also, early on in my touring career, I went on the road with Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefers. I remember one of the first shows I did with them was in Pittsburgh at the Pirates’ stadium. That was the largest crowd I had ever played for.”
While Shimabukuro regards the Fleck-Corea show as the best live show he attended, it was the performance of much less known fellow Hawaiian musicians that influenced him more than any other live gig.
“Back in the early ’90s, I saw the Ka’au Crater Boys perform at the Honolulu Zoo,” he says about the Hawaiian duo of Tony Fernandez and Ernie Cruz. “I sat in the front row, so I could see Troy Fernandez play the ukulele. He had such a cool and unique style of playing, and he was very influential for me.”
Eddie Kamae, who played for many years with the Sons of Hawaii, is Shimabukuro’s favorite ukulele player, however.
“He singlehandedly inspired every ukulele player in Hawaii,” Shimabukuro says. “He is considered the first virtuoso of the four-stringed instrument and an icon in the history of traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music. As far as guitar players go, my list of heroes would include all of the usual suspects, from (Jimi) Hendrix to Jeff Beck to (Andres) Segovia to (Pat) Metheny.”
Shimabukuro started playing the ukulele at the age of four. His mother played the
instrument and was his first teacher, teaching him traditional Hawaiian music. Later, he became interested in rock, blues, and jazz.
“Growing up in Hawaii has greatly influenced my music and life,” Shimabukuro says. “I wouldn’t be playing the ukulele today if I was not born and raised in Hawaii. The feeling and groove of traditional Hawaiian music was unlike any other style of music out there. The simplicity and spiritual aspect of traditional music influences the way I play other styles of music, including rock and blues.”
Shimabukuro recorded Queen’s epic song “Bohemian Rhapsody” live and in the studio on his 2011 album Peace, Love, Ukulele, and he included a live version on this year’s Live in Japan.
He says it’s his favorite song to play for a live audience.
“I love playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ because of the audience’s reaction. You can almost hear them singing along in their head as the piece progresses.”
Shimabukuro says his 2012 album, Grand Ukulele, was memorable because of the involvement of legendary producer, engineer, and musician Alan Parsons. Parsons worked with the Beatles on Abbey Road, Paul McCartney with Wings LPs and Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon.
“Grand Ukulele was a great experience for me, because I got to work with the legendary Alan Parsons. Working with Alan was truly inspiring. I loved watching him work his magic with the microphones and vintage gear to make everything sound so musical.”
Shimabukuro, though, doesn’t need to take a backseat to any other musician. He has dabbled in rock, folk, jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, and classical music while staying true to his Hawaiian roots and injecting the unique sound of the ukulele into numerous musical genres.