September-October 2007  

ARTIST: JAKE SHIMABUKURO

TITLE: GENTLY WEEPS

LABEL: HITCHHIKE RECORDS

BY AUDREY COLEMAN

jake_live_jp_350.jpgJake Shimabukuro's latest release could be titled The Naked Ukulele. Except for a few bonus tracks, the Honolulu-born ukulele virtuoso has stripped away the instrumental backup used in his four previous releases to let us experience his artistic sensibility without distractions. The result is a recording of rare emotional intensity. It showcases not only his astounding technique but also his drive to explore musical genres. While the Hawaiian folk roots of the ukulele remain strong today, Jake's music pushes beyond them fearlessly.

A haunting rock-blues-inspired riff opens the tastefully embellished version of George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  After stating the melody, he creates a bridge of chord progressions and builds with a hard-driving rhythm and huge dynamics that belie the small size of his four-stringed instrument. Then he returns to the melody for a tender conclusion. During a recent interview, Jake told me that Harrison's widow expressed her appreciation of Jake's adaptation in person when he performed it in concert. In fact, Harrison was a great fan of the ukulele, collecting instruments and recordings for much of his artistic life. For that reason, too, Jake feels a bond with the late Beatle whom he never met.

Whether they are adaptations of another artist's work or original compositions, many of the pieces on Gently Weeps show Jake's flair for varying dynamics and rhythm to create different moods. His pieces take us on journeys that frequently lead through a storm of passion before bringing us safely home. The endings are often unhurried and thoughtful as if to let us reflect on the musical and emotional path we have just taken.

Jake's affinity for the jazz idiom comes to the fore in his interpretation of Chick Corea's Spain. It is at once respectful and innovative. The main melodic figures are stated, the chord progressions remain, but these evolve into an energetic series of lightning riffs that build to an exuberant finish. Another jazz number, the standard Misty, stays closer to the original at first, and then bursts into a fast-paced, light-hearted improvisation.

Jake_shimabukuro_jams_2_350.jpgWith the traditional Japanese song Sakura, the ukulele player emulates the delicacy of Japan's courtly koto, a member of the zither family. For the most part, his adaptation respects the simple elegance of the folk melody. However, he can't resist inserting an interlude of passionate strumming that adds dynamism and gives new shape to the overall composition.

In a nod to his Hawaiian roots, Jake includes among the "bonus tracks" a composition of his own, Angel. Among the backup musicians is the superb steel guitarist Bobby Ingano, dropping tones into Jake's simple, heartfelt melody that bring to mind crystals catching the light.

Each original composition offers another side of Jake's musical personality. Blue Roses Falling presents a simple, understated melody with interesting chord progressions. Particularly effective is the way the music ripples away to nothing at the end. By contrast, Grandma's Groove is sassy and swinging all the way through, a tribute to Jake's "hip grandmother," as he mentions in his notes. The speedy, lightly percussive attack on the chords brings to mind hummingbird wings. In fact, Jake confirmed during our interview that the hummingbird metaphor is apt for the light feathery strumming technique he uses in the song. In yet another vein, Breathe creates a meditative mood with the final few notes falling like dew drops.

Gently Weeps also includes two cuts from Jake's score for the Japanese-produced film Hula Girl. His theme song for the film and another song, Wish on My Star, have an accessible pop flavor and harmonic interest, succeeding in both instrumental and vocal versions.

If you have never seen Jake Shimabukuro perform, Gently Weeps makes a fine introduction to this 30-year old virtuoso. However, to fully experience his musical magic and personal magnetism, you need to see Jake live. Lucky for us, he'll be back in Southern California in October. Club dates aren't confirmed yet, so check out his cool website for information. It's www.jakeshimabukuro.com.