By Jonathan Widran and Jessica Taylor
Sometime during Jake Shimabukuro’s stylistically diverse, 90-minute-set, my insightful, musically attuned friend, caught up in the emotion of the moment, exclaimed, “Not only is he an amazing musician, he’s a magician.” The words perfectly captured the ukulele master’s essence and the gentle yet powerful impact he made on his audience as he embarked on a thrilling range of genre-hopping adventures and transformed his instrument into a flamenco guitar, electric guitar and even the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument.
As he vibes intuitively off the subtle and upbeat grooves of bass guitarist Jackson Waldhoff – a Japanese born musician who attended the same high school in Hawaii– Jake is always a one-man ukulele orchestra, proverbially pulling fresh sonic textures and possibilities out of the hat while turning his instrument into a palette of unexpected, often surreal sounds, depending on the mood or theme of the tune.
With most artists, this kind of praise would mean simply appreciating the wondrous expression they bring to their instruments. With Jake, it’s also about the way he eases so effortlessly from showing graceful heartfelt affection for the music of his Japanese heritage to creating a lively, fast-paced spin through the timeless melody of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
One minute he’s soothing the audience with the easy swaying native Aloha spirit, and the next minute he’s paying tribute to the recently departed Jeff Beck with his otherworldly version of “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” which Stevie Wonder penned for the legendary guitarist. For that song, Jake used a fascinating technique that’s become one of his trademarks. He uses floor pedals to create backing loops from what he already played to seamlessly modulate from a soft-spoken acoustic vibe to a distorted electric guitar sound, expanding the tune into improvisational rock fusion territory. Building on that energy, he later shared the infectious cross-cultural jam “Dragon,” his rockin’ response to a question he once asked himself: “What would happen if Bruce Lee and Eddie Van Halen got together and composed a song for the ukulele?”
Artfully balancing these high energy tunes, the emotional core of the evening was Jake’s delicate and intricate performance of one of his grandmother’s favorites, the traditional Japanese folk song ““Sakura, Sakura.” Translating to “cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,” it pays loving homage to his cultural background. Jake introduced the beautiful song by telling the audience that it’s traditionally played on the koto, which has 13 strings – and that in his younger days, he would sit in his room for hours trying to figure out ways to play it on the uke.
Jake’s been working his one-of-a-kind magic since the early 2000s, when he became the first ukulele player from Hawaii to sign with Epic Record International. A few albums into his career, as he was gaining popularity in Hawaii and Japan, he achieved international fame. A video emerged of him playing a flawless version of the George Harrison Beatles classic “When My Guitar Gently Weeps” that showcased his sensitivity, precision and speed. Posted on YouTube without his knowledge, it became one of the first viral videos on the platform and to date has 17.6M+ views.
In the thousands of shows he’s done throughout the world since, “Gently Weeps” has been the crowd pleaser audiences wait for. The way Jake segues from breezy, laid-back strumming to his trademark athletic, high-octane jamming continues to fascinate no matter how many times we may have listened to it live, on CD/streaming or online. On this night, he and Waldhoff paved its way with a distorted guitar driven, rock concert worthy medley featuring segments of “We Will Rock You,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Smoke on the Water” and even ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”
Another rock classic Jake’s brought his own uniqueness creativity to is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Subtly encouraging the crowd, he turned it into a whimsical singalong, with wild shouts from audience members. He also brought his own creativity to originals like the Carlos Montoya influenced, flamenco fired “Let’s Dance” and the uplifting “Sonny Days Ahead” - originally a duet with “King of Slydeco” Sonny Landreth on Jake’s 2021 all-star collaboration album Jake & Friends. He also strummed an original ballad titled “Ichigo Ichie,” whose title in Japanese means “once in a lifetime.” As Jake explained, it’s about being grateful and present as we experience something that will never quite happen the same way again.
Jake’s high-spirited pop/jazz closer “Kawika” – a song written for a Hawaiian king known as “The Merrie Monarch” and originally recorded by The Sunday Manoa – was his way of honoring his home in Hawaii while sharing the Aloha spirit. I think we all left with a warm “ohana” feeling, which translates to “family” in Hawaiian.