A concert review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker (email@example.com).
The young (31 yeqrs old) Mr. Shimabukoro was winding up his latest tour with this date, a solo and the last before returning home to Hawaii. Sometimes, catching the tail end of such a trek can be a good thing, sometimes bad. After all, tours are exhausting and wind-down performances can tend to be a bit hollow. Such was not the case this night. In fact, at the close of the evening, I discovered I'd been sitting next to his publicity agent, Michael Bloom, a guy who'd seen Jake live a number of times, and even he was flabbergasted by what a magnificent show it was. I was 100% in dazed agreement.
Shimabukoro is the last word in ukelele players, has been on Conan O'Brien several times, has released CDs, scored a movie (Hula Girl), toured with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones as well as Jimmy Buffett, supported and performed with Cindy Lauper, and who knows?, may even be on the short list as musical director at the gates of heaven. Lately, though, he's gotten as serious as a heart attack when it comes to the highest levels of instrumental mastery, succeeding beyond anyone's wildest dreams. What I saw on May 3 in The Marsee Auditorium was the sizzling confirmation of this self-effacing young fretsman as the latest in a proud line of American master musicians.
From the moment Shimabukoro tore into his opening song, Let's Dance, a novo-flamenco number, he was keyed to an unbelievably high pitch, delivering unearthly finesse amidst fiery chops and a sound so clean it commanded the audience's full attention until the very last minute of the gig. No sooner was the third number closing down than it was obvious the barnburner's fusion style is in a direct line with John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Al DiMeola. In fact, I'd cite Coryell as the closest parallel, as that guy was perpetually a mind-blowing innovator unafraid to go anywhere with his improvs, and Jake's exactly the same.
Dragon, though a delicate number inspired by Bruce Lee, was equally credited to Eddie Van Halen, a huge influence on the uke player. The very next song, Me and Shirley T, an instrumental ode to the famed Shirley Temple drink and its over the top sugar-load, proved the proposition as a complexly vigorous number. The take on Led Zeppelin's Going to California has constantly proven to be a winner for listeners, this crowd being no different, taking immediately to the its glass-like delicacy and intelligent middle eight. Then, however, Shimabukoro pulled up a Japanese classic, Sakura Sakura, prompted by his discovery of the koto when last visiting Japan. The cover was jaw-dropping, sounding precisely like that ancient staccato instrument replete with its unique slurs and bends. A ukelele mimic a koto? Impossible! And yet, I sat stunned as it occurred, the highlight of an evening packed with surprises.
Wes Montomery is another of Jake's beloved antecedents, and he flew over the strings on the dedicatory Wes on Four, speedy as hell, one of many tunes showing him to be the equal of a Carnatic musician, with time changes, fanning, whirlwind chords breaking off into perfect leads, and God only knows what else, impossibility piling atop impossibility. The contrast came with Blue Roses Falling, a self-penned tune written after the vision of a friend's dying grandmother, a DeGrassi-ish ballad with a beautiful theme and an additional factor much too ignored in modern music: perfect tonal control of dynamics, not through the amp or any pedals but fingers, velocity, and iron discipline.
Two songs made their debut during the set, numbers he was happy with after many compositional considerations, but an airing of Erroll Garner's Misty followed by Chick Corea's Spain wowed the audience, blending trad with uber-complex modernity. Two George Harrison songs ,"While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Something, gently showcased the composer Shimabukoro most likes to tributize. Then there was his, as he grinningly told, his old band-mate Franz Schubert. During a take on the Ave Maria, you could have heard a pin drop, so rapt was every ear, the entire venue as silent as a held breath. More than once, Jake showed himself to be a gently humorous character with a penchant for talking to the audience, sharing stories and quips. More, after the riveting recital, not only did he effusively thank his listeners for their support but appeared in the foyer to talk and sign CDs.
Trust me, this guy is a full-blown phenomenon. Despite the many attractions of his discs, you can't afford to miss him live. It's not just the music but the experience itself. What he does must be seen to be believed. This year's tour is over, but, when next he ventures forth from the island chain, do whatever you can to catch him. His repute will only increase with the years, and it sends chills up the spine to imagine what's yet in store. Jake Shimabukoro is neither novelty nor whiz-kid, he's a true master player, not to mention an innovator of the first water, and we see only just so many of those in a lifetime.
Copyright 2008, Peterborough Folk Music Society. This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.