Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro returns to the Lowcountry powered by a new CD
By Ballard LesemannSpecial to The Post and Courier – Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has been plucking and strumming since he was 4.
At 36, with a critically lauded new studio album in hand, he still sounds like an eager youngster pushing himself to create joyful sounds.
Shimabukuro will be in North Charleston on Friday for a solo concert in support of his new 12-song collection “Grand Ukulele,” a lush, expertly produced follow-up to the chart-topping 2011 album “Peace, Love, Ukulele.”
Shimabukuro worked with legendary producer/engineer Alan Parsons (Pink Floyd, The Beatles) on “Grand Ukulele.” Some of the tracks feature simple arrangements with solo ukulele or simple instrumentation, while others expand into new symphonic territory with the addition of a 29-piece orchestra.
“What I love about this record is Alan’s overall approach, and he encouraged me to make this album as a solo ukulele album where I came up with the arrangements at first,” Shimabukuro said in an interview with Charleston Scene. “We went into the studio and recorded all of my new songs as solo ukulele pieces, and then we stepped away from them for a few days and came back and picked the ones we liked the best. From there, he’d say, ‘I think this one would be great with a full orchestra,’ or, ‘This tune would be great with a rhythm section.’ ”
Parsons and Shimabukuro also had an all-star rhythm section on hand featuring drummer Simon Phillips (The Who, Pete Townshend), bassist Randy Tico (Lawson Rollins, Benise) and Kip Winger (Winger, Alice Cooper).
“The kind of musicians Alan was talking about bringing in were incredible,” Shimabukuro said. “It was so cool. I kept thinking, ‘I’m just a kid from Hawaii, and I can’t believe I’m jamming here with a full orchestra and Simon Phillips.’ ”
No matter the instrumentation, “Grand Ukulele” captures the essence of Shimabukuro’s impressive technical flair as well as his expressive, heartfelt songwriting.
While the majority of the songs on the album are originals, a few choice covers also make their way into the set.
“This album was a little bit more conceptual,” Shimabukuro explains. “We wanted each song to roll into the next, and we wanted it to feel like one artistic project. That’s one of the things Alan is so great at. He sat down and worked with me a lot on the arrangements, and he made a lot of great suggestions for my original pieces and the cover tunes.
“He suggested doing the ‘Fields of Gold’ bit by Sting, Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ ”
Shimabukuro’s broad repertoire spans from Hawaiian traditionals and jazzy standards to reworkings of blues, pop and classic rock favorites. The unpredictable nature of Shimabukuro’s ever-evolving playlist helps set him apart from other world music acts.
Shimabukuro first came to the Holy City in May 2009 when he performed a solo show as part of the Spoleto Festival USA jazz series. Standing on the Cistern stage on the College of Charleston campus, he dazzled a full house of fans (the audience for the sold-out show spilled onto St. Philip and George streets).
His dynamic set included jazz-based ditties, bluesy numbers, flamenco-styled pieces, sophisticated ballads and explosive rockers.
In 2009, the solo ukulele concept was still very new to Shimabukuro. He’d always played in small combos and ensembles in Hawaii and California before.
Since then, he’s strived to express himself in creative ways through his instrument, developing new techniques and exploring new concepts.
“There are so many ways to compose music,” he said. “I want there to always be something different about each new song. If you put everything you have into every song every time, they can tend to start sounding the same. I’ve tried to use something different, like finger-tapping or odd chord-voicing that sounds like a mandolin chord along the way.
“There’s one song on the new record called ‘Missing Three’ where I only use three strings. Technique is one thing, but you also have to think about melody.”
On previous albums, Shimabukuro rendered unique versions of everything from Bach to The Beatles to Michael Jackson in addition to his own compositions.
With nothing more than a four-string-style ukulele in hand, he created surprisingly rich, huge sounds in the studio.
For “Grand Ukulele,” Shimabukuro recorded everything live in the studio with no overdubs.
“It’s funny, when you think of Alan Parsons, you tend to think of elaborate productions with lots of overdubbing,” Shimabukuro said. “But here, he was all about the live performance, and I wasn’t expecting that.
“I knew it was going to be a priceless opportunity for me, and I knew I had to go into it with an open mind and an open heart and just be a sponge as much as I could. I learned so much.”
If his blazing chops and enthusiastic performing style put Shimabukuro on the map as a solo musician, “Grand Ukulele” will surely enhance his credibility as a serious composer and arranger.