Ukulele virtuoso rewrites rules on his instrument

Monday, May 25, 2009 at 1:00am
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Jake Shimabukuro, a 32-year-old ukulele mastermind from Hawaii

Like Charlie Parker on the alto sax or Earl Scruggs on the banjo, Hawaii’s Jake Shimabukuro has completely rewritten the book regarding what can be done on the ukulele. His speed, imagination, versatility and flair result in astonishing performances of both familiar songs and original pieces.

The 32-year-old star will appear Wednesday night at The Belcourt Theater along with local group Sam & Ruby. Shimabukuro’s been playing the ukulele since age 4, getting his first lessons from his mother. Among his innovations is using effect pedals to create a variety of sounds never associated with the instrument.

Despite the ukulele having only four strings and a two-octave operating range, Shimabukuro crafts imaginative arrangements and constantly makes surprising and impressive musical statements. He’s quite a showman, incorporating strumming and plucking effects into his performances, and executing both rhythmically fierce groove numbers and sophisticated ballads.

“It was just the sound that first attracted me to the ukulele,” Shimabukuro said. “In the beginning I only knew one or two chords, and I kept playing those over and over. I was kind of a hyperactive type as a kid, but the one thing that I could sit and play for hours without interruption was the ukulele. It never stopped fascinating me.”

He’s spent the past 11 years astounding fans and musicians with his work on a custom-made, four-string tenor ukulele. His technique is equal parts blazing and sensitive, intricate and simple. Interestingly, Shimabukuro moved from obscurity to international recognition rather quickly. He was still working in a Honolulu music store when the disc Pure Heart surfaced on the world music circuit in 1998.

Pure Heart included percussionist Lopaka Colon and guitarist Jon Yamasato, whose equally distinctive and frenetic rhythm support proved the ideal contrast to Shimabukuro’s spiraling ukulele solos. The trio earned four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (Hawaii’s version of the Grammys).

The follow-up Pure Heart 2 earned them a fifth Hoku award, but Shimabukuro then departed the group, though he and Colon subsequently formed a another trio called Colon. This time the band’s guitarist was Guy Cruz. But Shimabukuro decided on a solo career in 2001, and since then has become a beloved figure among both world music fans and string musicians.

He’s also contributed a blockbuster rendition of “Stars & Stripes Forever” to the 2007 CD Song of America and issued two top-selling DVDs, the instructional Play Loud Ukulele and Million Miles Away (Jake Shimabukuro).

Shimabukuro’s Nashville connections include touring and playing with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, and appearing on their 2003 CD Little Worlds.

“Bela Fleck is one of those musicians who has never stopped growing and improving on their instrument; he’s one of my idols,” Shimabukuro said. “Through him I’ve met so many other incredible musicians like Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas and Chris Thile — other guys who are also constantly improving and doing incredible things. They make me challenge myself to keep up and are real inspirations to me.”

He’s also recorded with Ziggy Marley, Cyndi Lauper, Yo-Yo Ma and Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, even contributing songs to the Buffett-produced film Hoot. Shimabukuro’s own film efforts include composing the score for Hula Girls, which was Japan’s official entry for the 2007 Oscars, which was later released separately as a soundtrack recording.

Still, it’s his new release Jake Shimabukuro Live (Hitchhike Records) that’s generating increased appreciation and audience for his skills. The 20-song work includes 15 Shimabukuro compositions, plus his unique arrangements of tunes ranging from Bach’s “Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor” to Chick Corea’s “Spain,” Rod Temperton’s “Thriller” and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Recorded at various stops in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Japan, Shimabukuro’s remarkable abilities often convince you that you’re hearing two or three ukuleles at once, even though he’s playing these songs live. Shimabukuro doubled as disc producer, and the wide-ranging disc is the most effective and complete portrait of a phenomenal musician’s repertoire.

Shimabukuro credits another of his idols, the martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee, with helping shape his attitude toward music and his desire to be a champion for the ukulele.

“Bruce Lee always said that there were many styles of martial arts and you could find something valuable in all of them,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would be hypnotized by all kinds of music. It wasn’t until I got older that people started telling me that this is jazz, this is classical, this is rock, and all the distinctions. I’ve never really tried to play a particular style, but instead just embrace all types of music because I really do enjoy playing them all.

“For me, playing the ukulele is a way of bringing more people into the music, getting them to see that making music is fun and that everyone can participate,” Shimabukuro said. “When they see me up there playing this four-string instrument that only has two octaves and doing all these different things I hope they feel that ‘Hey, if he can do it, so can I.’”

What: Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro in concert along with Sam & Ruby
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Belcourt Theatre, 2102 Belcourt Ave.
Cost: $20
Info: belcourt.org, 846-3150