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Ukulele master Shimabukuro rocks San Diego

18 July 2010 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Friday, May 1, 2009

His fingers flutter like a bird. His hands torture the strings like a heavy-metal guitar player. And he ends a song with a tender pluck, like a lover kissing his beloved.

This is Jake Shimabukuro, 32, whose instrument of choice is the ukulele. Yeah, the tiny, Hawaiian thing.

Listening to him play, you would never know it. His music pushes the genre of Hawaiian music, with instrumentation that rivals the best of jazz, blues, folk, pop and even Japanese koto music.

Frets magazine dubbed him the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.” Other music critics have likened him to John Coltrane on saxophone and Bela Fleck on banjo.

If you have been lucky enough to see him in concert, at the Belly Up in Solana Beach or at the Grace Theater in Oceanside for instance, you’d know how electrifying his music is.

Or if you have checked out his YouTube videos – such as his rendition of George Harrison’s “My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which has had 3 million views to date – you know how tender his playing can be.

But if you haven’t — or even if you have — you can stoke on his mastery on his recently-released album, “Jake Shimabukuro Live” (Hitchhike Records), a compilation of best concert performances.

It showcases this virtuoso’s incredible range, with amazing interpretations of five classics such as J.S. Bach’s “Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and Chick Corea’s Flamenco-style “Spain.” It also includes 12 original compositions.

San Diego followers

The style and fury of his playing has spawned a new generation of ukulele players worldwide, including San Diego. “Almost Islanders,” a reggae Hawaiian band, draws inspiration from the master. Landon Boettger, a 17-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe, took up the ukulele after watching him play “Gently Weeps” on YouTube.

From Hawaiian to jazz

Shimabukuro (pronounced she-mah-BOO-koo-row) was born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii. Playing the ukulele since the age of four, he started with island bands, strumming traditional Hawaiian fare. (It’s pronounced ooh-koo-leh-leh in Hawaiian, not yew-koo-lay-lay as on the U.S. mainland.)

Eager to expand his range, Shimabukuro started moving into jazz, blues, Latin and Japanese tunes in his 20s. The versatility and breadth of his range stunned audiences.

Soon, he was touring the U.S. mainland and Japan, as the opening act for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones since 2002 and Jimmy Buffet since 2005.

More invitations followed. He played on Ziggy Marley’s “Love is My Religion” album in 2006; and performed with or opened for Bobby McFerrin, Tommy Emmanual, Darol Anger, the Honolulu Symphony and Nashville’s MuzikMafia.

He has even played on the “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Latest album shows maturity

Shimabukuro’s latest album is his finest to date, showcasing his artistic maturity. His early albums (“Sunday Morning” 2002) highlighted his incredible skills, but lacked depth. More recent albums were jaw-dropping covers of other musicians’ work (“My Life” 2007) or played background to others (“Hula Girls” 2007, a movie soundtrack).

But in this one, the musician moves to center stage with personal pieces and interpretations that feature his signature jams, stops, strums and single plucks. The entire album radiates with brilliance, energy, dynamism and mastery.

“Me and Shirley T.” starts you on a slow surf but takes you into the high waves, before returning to shore. Chick Corea’s “Spain” sizzles with Flamenco passion. “Wes on Four” pays tribute to jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, while the Japanese folk tune “Sakura Sakura” invokes the serenity of koto plucks before breaking into heavy rock.

Shimabukuro’s occasional comments to live audiences on the album gives a sense of his easygoing demeanor, in between those long, intense yet meditative sets.

Next San Diego visit

The musical innovator doesn’t play in San Diego again until Nov. 19, 2009 at Anthology and Nov. 20 at Grace Theatre. As before, his concerts will probably sell out.

Until then, enjoy the ride on his latest album.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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