Album Review: Jake Shimabukuro — a Visionary Ukulele Virtuoso

By Allen Michie

What 2022 needs is “more ukulele.” Put on some ukulele music and just try to feel bad.

Jake Shimabukuro, Jake & Friends (Music Theories Recordings)

I’ll confess to a guilty pleasure: cheesy all-star duet albums. Usually, the deserved reaction at the end of the record is “Why?” But, on the other hand, “Why not?” We’ve all heard Elton John or Frank Sinatra sing their usual hits in the usual way a thousand times. So why not spend a few minutes hearing Elton with Tammy Wynette? Or Frank with Bono? The worst that can happen is it will be a head-shaking, temple-massaging train wreck that succeeds only as high camp (beware the inevitable Celine Dion tracks). The best that can happen — as with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga — is there will be some genuine magic.

(Then there is William Shatner’s Christmas album, Shatner Claus, with Iggy Pop, Judy Collins, Henry Rollins, Todd Rundgren, and Joe Louis Walker, among others. I don’t have the slightest idea how to process that one. But I digress.)

If you have felt a void in your life that can only be filled by hearing Jon Anderson of Yes sing “A Day in the Life” with solo ukulele, Music Theories Recordings has released an album for you. Jake & Friends features the visionary ukulele virtuoso (yes, those three words go together) Jake Shimabukuro. It’s a perfect nightcap for the end of 2021. Forget “more cowbell.” What 2022 needs is “more ukulele.” Put on some ukulele music and just try to feel bad.

Shimabukuro is no novelty artist. Born in Hawai’i, this young man is the most ambitious musician on his traditional instrument in a generation. The ukulele has a lot going against it. It has only four strings, which limits its harmonics, a short neck that severely limits its tonal range, narrow frets that impede fancy fingerwork, and a plinky sound that constrains a wide emotional expression. Plus, it carries lots of baggage, ranging from New Age music for Hawaii tourists to native music deeply grounded in the beautiful dance traditions of the Hawaiian people.

Shimabukuro takes these limitations and restrictions as a creative challenge. He’s developed new techniques and recording approaches that effectively blend the instrument into jazz, rock, blues, bluegrass, folk, and classical genres. (Not that he’s neglected its native roots — on the contrary, the Hawaiian breezes waft through much of his impressively long discography.) What Béla Fleck is to the banjo, Jake Shimabukuro is to the ukulele.

On Jake & Friends, it’s impressive how different and appealing the ukulele can sound. Depending on the musical surroundings and how the studio producers have moved the sliders, Shimabukuro’s ukulele can sound much like the jittery, high-pitched electric guitar of a Congolese soukous player like Diblo Dibala. Other times, it can sound like the precise, shimmering touch-guitar sound of Stanley Jordan. When in a World Music gear, it can jibe with contemporary harp music, like that played by Deborah Henson Conant. In a bluegrass context, Shimabukuro can play the ukulele like a junior mandolin. He knows that the approach to the instrument and the sound he gets from it depend on the rhythm, the genre of the composition, and the styles of the musicians around him — that’s what makes him a pro.

This couldn’t be clearer on Jake & Friends, a showcase of different musical styles that borders on the ostentatious. Sure, the album’s a lark, an unabashedly commercial move, a stab at reaching a wider audience, as are all these all-star duo records. But, like the best of them, it has its moments of deep musical rewards, and it’s always a lot of fun.

The disc starts with Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,” featuring soft rocker (and, appropriately, former professional surfer) Jack Johnson and Hawaiian reggae singer Paul Fuga. It’s a straightforward reading, and Shimabukuro eases us into the concept by not initially challenging our assumptions about what the ukulele is and what it can be. Then we really get rolling with “Sonny Days Ahead,” featuring the great and underappreciated roots/Americana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. It’s an inspired choice. Landreth adds some Louisiana grit and soul to the smoothly produced sound. After things heat up, Landreth and Shimabukuro overlap solos and pass lines back and forth. It’s cool to hear how Shimabukuro can adapt to Landreth’s distinctive sound and how much Landreth in turn can explore new sides of his own playing.

Jake Shimabukuro is no novelty artist. Photo: courtesy of the artist

The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” is a perfect selection for Ziggy Marley. The two-beat rhythm is parallel to reggae, and Marley’s relaxed voice demonstrates how well this melody slides up and down its endearing chord changes. Another Beatles song on the record is “A Day in the Life” with Jon Anderson. If there was going to be a gimmicky song, this would be it — the most epic Beatles tune done as a duo with the lead singer from Yes and a ukulele. Of course there are massive overdubs and studio layering, but it’s still just the two of them. Is any cover of “Day in the Life” really necessary? But the “woke up, fell out of bed” section does sound great on ukulele — that two-beat joonk-joonka-joonk rhythm sounds very Hawaiian. The weirdness of the lyrics fits Anderson well, as “A Day in the Life” could have easily been a Yes song back in the day.

Vince Gill and Amy Grant share vocals on the third Beatles tune, “Something.” Their two fine voices blend with character and perfect intonation, and Shimabukuro demonstrates how he can make a ukulele sound like George Harrison’s guitar. The country side of the genre exploration continues with “Find Yourself” with Lukas Nelson, who is wandering outside his wheelhouse here with more of a reggae rhythm. Nelson’s colorful voice finds its distinctive ways into the harmonies, and there’s a fine melodic solo from Shimabukuro.

Shimabukuro finally gets to wail on “Smokin’ Strings” with Billy Strings, the parallel bluegrass maestro of his young generation. It starts out smooth and folksy, a bit like some of Chet Atkins’s late work, which bordered on smooth jazz or smooth bluegrass. (Smooth bluegrass? Is there such a thing? [Should there be?] There are some lovely harmonies with just the acoustic guitar and electric ukulele. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, the tempo quadruples and the track goes into a bluegrass/rock hoedown. It doesn’t seem to match the first part of the tune, but it’s a blast to hear. You’d be well advised to listen to it alone because it may lead to your first serious attempt at air ukulele.

“Wrapping Paper” features the rich baritone voice of Ray Benson and the vocals of his bandmates from Asleep at the Wheel. Free of the fiddle, drums, and other instruments in their Texas Swing band, Asleep at the Wheel can highlight their harmonies — think the Andrews Sisters in cowboy hats. Shimabukuro is wonderfully adaptable, here taking on the phrasing of a steel guitar, substituting rapid strumming for the steel guitar’s signature slide vibrato.

The last of the country-inspired tracks is “Stardust” with Willie Nelson, that veteran of other people’s duet albums. There’s no possible way this one couldn’t be great. It’s just Nelson’s voice and ukulele — no overdubs, no guitar, no studio tricks. Shimabukuro plays some sparkling overtones that twinkle like the stars in the sky. You can imagine Joe Pass is playing the ukulele with this gentle swing, and Nelson is closely recorded so every detail is revealed in his classic interpretation of this hauntingly lyrical song. You should seek this one out.

“Come Monday” with Jimmy Buffett has similar strengths, displaying what the earned wisdom of a veteran singer can do with just a good microphone and a single ukulele. It’s hardly a stretch for Buffet to capture the coconut-scented sounds of the islands, but it’s revealing to hear him record his hit song with a slower tempo and stripped-down intimacy. This is a must-hear for Buffett fans who want to experience just what that voice can do when it isn’t partying and messing around.

Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald check off the “pop-singers-from-the-’80s-you-had-forgotten-about-and-oh-are-they-still-alive?” box. Loggins is in fine voice on the infectious “Why Not,” with its stomping shuffle rhythm, but the slick production keeps a tight lid on things and no one ever really cuts loose. McDonald is featured on the Moody Blues song “Go Now.” His voice has aged, but it sounded pretty mature even when he was a young singer with the Doobie Brothers in the ’70s. The tune is done as a straightforward waltz in a duet with just voice and ukulele: it’s amazing to hear what Shimabukuro can do with just four strings. He’s not using some cheap plastic uke he picked up in a tourist shop in Honolulu, I can assure you.

Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule makes “On the Road to Freedom” a welcome flat-out jam session. As on the “Sonny Days Ahead” track with Landreth, Haynes and Shimabukuro trade phrases, finish one another’s lines, overlap solos, weave in and out of each other’s phrasing, and meet harmonically inside cascades of arpeggios. If you’ll hang in there for the full 13 minutes, you’ll hear some of the best musicianship on the record. Haynes’s mournful, bluesy vocals don’t really fit this texture, but hey, just picture the Allman Brothers chilling on the beach in Aloha shirts.

“Two High” checks off the “improbable-duet-with-a-grungy-indy-rock-band-you-can’t-believe-agreed-to-this” box with Moon Taxi. With just handclaps for percussion, you’re actually able to hear what they sound like when they don’t have to compete with Big Drums. Showing similar restraint, Bette Midler steps away from the histrionics and revisits her stately hit “The Rose.” This time a single cello is added for a chorus, followed by more strings on the next chorus. With just straight and simple accompaniment, Shimabukuro shows that he knows how to hold back in service to a song.

Finally, since Johnny Cash wasn’t available, Jessie Colin Young from the Youngbloods checks off the “duet-with-authoritative-elder-statesman-who-makes-you-wonder-if-this-will-be-his-last-recording” box. His creaky voice on “Get Together,” the quintessential ’60s hit, makes the hippie optimism of the original sound more like a poignant plea in this era of political division. How else could you hear “Come on, people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to love one another right now” in 2021?

Jake & Friends is a slick commercial album, but it is far from overdone. Shimabukuro and his guests should be congratulated for almost always using just vocals and ukulele — no synths, no guitars, no sweet string sections, and no drums. There are some exceptions to that here, but on most of the tracks you can hear the unfiltered control and expressiveness of the vocalists and the expansive technique of an artist in full mastery of his instrument.

If Bette Midler fans and Moon Taxi aficionados (a small circle on the musical Venn diagram, to be sure) end up finding common ground on this ambitious but unpretentious project, and if both end up buying their first ukulele record, then hey — why not?

Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX.

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