Jake Shimabukuro gets by with a little help from his friends
Ukulele artist tours in Breckenridge for holiday concert
Family and friendship is important to Jake Shimabukuro. On Monday, Dec. 13, in Breckenridge, the Hawaii-born ukulele artist will perform songs written by his idols with a group of his friends on stage — all because of his mother.
Shimabukuro’s mom sat him down with his first ukulele when he was only 4 years old. The comfort and ease of use — requiring just one finger strumming four nylon strings — allowed him to quickly pick it up and stick with it.
“The sound was very playful, very soothing,” Shimabukuro said. “… I just fell in love with it. There was just something about the way the instrument made me feel that just ignited this passion to keep playing it.”
The instrument was just a pastime for his mother and most of the state. Shimabukuro said pretty much everyone learns how to play ukulele there at some point, mainly in fourth or fifth grade music classes. It is not unusual to see and hear the ukulele, being such a focal part of the state’s culture.
“It didn’t seem off the wall to learn how to play it or something like that,” he said.
Shimabukuro found himself being a sideman in bands when he was younger, not being a singer. And with the ukulele being so common, it wasn’t until Shimabukuro was in his early 20s that he started considering turning it into a career.
Sony Music Japan saw potential in Shimabukuro’s skills, and he signed on for a seven-album deal in 2001. Shimabukuro said he wasn’t much of a songwriter then, mainly doing covers, so it helped him hone his skills.
“It forced me to write and to create my own music and my own songs and compositions,” Shimabukuro. “It was very challenging, but I really enjoyed the process, and it taught me a lot.”
Yet it was a cover that skyrocketed Shimabukuro’s mainland career. A recording of him playing the Beatles’ hit “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in the early days of YouTube in 2006.
Jake Shimabukuro’s latest album, “Jake & Friends,” released Nov. 12. The 16-track record features an expansive lineup of guest artists, such as Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, Ziggy Marley and more. | Mascot Label Group/Courtesy photo
What: Christmas in Hawaii with Jake Shimabukuro
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: Tickets range from $30 to $50. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required for guests 18 and older. Visit BreckMusic.org to purchase.
Covering other styles and genres set Shimabukuro apart from traditional ukulele players. He emulates and studies others like classical guitar players — or even harp players — to try to incorporate those essences into the ukulele. With the Beatles and other rock ‘n’ roll bands, he found himself getting into the world of electronics, manipulating and experimenting with amplifiers and pedals to create new tunes.
“I had to figure out a way to get around some of those complexities of the arrangement because I only had four strings and two octaves to work with,” Shimabukuro said. “But it was always fun because it was kind of like a puzzle. You had to sit there and figure out, ‘OK, how do I make this song work.’”
Following up on that video, he built up his confidence to release “Gently Weeps” as his first truly solo record sans background instruments. He toured by himself for a while but eventually added a bassist.
“I love the sound of a bass and a ukulele because they’re so on opposite ends of the spectrum, sonically,” Shimabukuro said. “They fill each other out and kind of complete each other. The bass operates as the lower half of the piano, and the ukulele is the right half of the piano.”
Aside from some chords on the guitar and minor drumming in high school marching band, the ukulele is the only instrument he knows how to play. He doesn’t have the urge to try others, saying the ukulele has kept him busy enough.
That went on pause with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Growing up, Shimabukuro thought he would go into the education industry and be an elementary teacher using the ukulele as a classroom tool. In 2020, he was home schooling his kids.
“It was a silver lining of things, being home and being able to spend that time with them,” Shimabukuro said.
It was also a stressful time — especially with his wife working in the medical field — but he had his first in-person performance in late July in Clearwater, Florida. A few months later, he released his latest album, “Jake & Friends.”
Many musicians used the pandemic to record, yet most of the project was done before the pandemic. The idea for the star-studded lineup of guest artists came about four years ago when Shimabukuro’s manager was throwing out names for a possible duets record. He thought it was cool but ultimately a pipe dream.
Then Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, co-producer and guest artist on “Jake & Friends,” called up Willie Nelson. Two months later, Shimabukuro was nervously standing next to the legend and recording a cover of “Stardust.”
“It gave the project momentum, and here we have this record with 16 tracks,” Shimabukuro said. “We were just hoping to get 10. … This is really my first time taking something on like this, and I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I still can’t believe it all came together.”
Most of the collaborators were people Shimabukuro had worked with in the past, such as Jimmy Buffett and Jack Johnson. Shimabukuro met Ziggy Marley through Johnson, and he then played a song on Marley’s “Love is my Religion” album.
The guests had a choice of what they wanted to do. He wrote two originals with Billy Strings and Sonny Landreth, “Smokin’ Strings” and “Sonny Days Ahead.” On the flip side, Shimabukuro recorded “Come Monday” with Buffet, which they frequently perform acoustically when touring together.
That song — plus “All You Need is Love” with Marley and “A Day in the Life” with Jon Anderson of progressive rock band Yes — was recorded remotely. Joining Marley and Anderson’s Beatles tributes is “Something” featuring Vince Gill and Amy Grant.
As a huge fan of Yes, having Anderson on the album is a delight for Shimabukuro.
“I never thought I would hear Jon Anderson’s voice singing over a ukulele,” Shimabukuro said. “Just incredible. I’m so grateful that he did that.”
Meanwhile, his mother’s favorite track on the album is Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” which she used to sing to him as a kid.
In addition to the new songs, Shimabukuro is making his winter tour with “The Voice” contestant Thunderstorm Artis, bassist Jackson Waldhoff and percussionist Taku Hirano for a Christmas-themed concert. Audiences can expect to hear “We Three Kings,” “O Holy Night” — one of Shimabukuro’s favorites — and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Shimabukuro has toured over the holidays before; however, he hasn’t done performances centered specifically on the season. He said having Artis on vocals makes the experience more like Christmas, just like how the vocals on “Jake & Friends” take it above an instrumental arrangement. Whether it’s holiday tunes, classic covers or original songs, Shimabukuro just wants to bring people together and have a good time.
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