Fresh off ‘Trio,’ Jake Shimabukuro makes ukulele fun
Jake Shimabukuro will change your mind about the ukulele, with his dramatic and lively mix of jazz, blues, funk, rock, bluegrass, classical, folk, flamenco, and traditional Hawaiian music. Shimabukuro, 43, has developed a sound filled with music improvisation.
The Jake Shimabukuro Trio performs at 7 p.m. Feb. 18, Musikfest Cafe, ArttsQuest Center, SteelStacks, Bethlehem, with Dave Preston, guitar, and Jackson Waldhoff, bass.
Shimabukuro is releasing a new album, “Trio,” a few days before the Bethlehem concert.
In a phone interview from his home in Hawaii, Shimabukuro says of the album’s concept: “With a trio there are a lot more dynamic colors to work with, and more interaction.”
“Trio” is his first album without drums.
“I am a huge fan of drums. It seems odd not to have them. But there are subtle things you don’t hear when you are in contact with a drummer. It tends to bury sounds.
“We had the band members in a studio with nothing prepared. Nowadays that is a real luxury. It is hard to get people all together creating things. It is something I treasure.”
The recording includes Preston and bassist Nolan Verner.
Shimabukuro has done many concerts without a band. He appeared solo at the Sellersville Theater in 2018 and 2019. In Bethlehem, he will open with a solo segment. “I like to introduce the sound of the ukulele for warming up the ear, and then bring in other elements,” he says.
He is known for using effects pedals, but says, “I use them sparingly, for maybe one or two songs a night.”
Shimabukuro includes one or two traditional Hawaiian songs each show. “I want to showcase what kind of music inspired me,” he says.
He only travels with one ukulele, a Kamaka tenor. “I use the same one for performing, recording and practicing,” admitting that he is taking a risk having just one instrument.
Shimabukuro grew up in Hawaii, with his mother as his first music teacher. “Mom taught me the ukulele when I was four years old. After that I couldn’t put it down.”
He was well-known in Hawaii for a solo career and with the groups Pure Heart and Colon.
“Local musicians were so accessible and generous. When I was growing up these were my rock stars. Back then people weren’t so busy, and things were a little more laid-back.”
He has performed with Bette Midler, Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, John Hiatt, Cyndi Lauper, and has recorded with Alan Parsons.
Shimabukuro broke through to world-wide fame when his version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, with more than 12 million views on YouTube.
Harrison, of Beatles’ fame, was a big proponent of the ukulele. He once wrote in a letter, “Everybody should have and play a ‘uke.’ It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”
Shimabukuro says, “George Harrison had this thing about making people feel so special about playing an instrument. I like to think he had a hand from heaven in making ‘Ukulele Weeps’ go viral.”
The ukulele, having just four strings, has a range of only two octaves. Its simplicity makes it appealing.
“When I talk to seniors who never played an instrument before, they think they are hard to play, like a piano or guitar. But when I mention the ukulele they smile and say, ‘That sounds like fun.’
“It’s the same with kids. It’s small and the strings are made of nylon, making it easy to play.”
Shimabukuro, who is married and has a son, has a rapport with children. “After I saw the film ‘Kindergarten Cop,’ I said, ‘I would love to be a kindergarten teacher.’”
Jake Shimabukuro, though, was born to play the ukulele, as you will agree when you see him in concert.
Tickets: ArtsQuest box office, ArtsQuest Center, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem; steelstacks.org; 610-297-7100; 610-332-1300