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Jake caps a memorable year
BY STEVEN MARK / email@example.com
Jake Shimabukuro is ready to close out “his year” with a show for his best supporters here in Hawaii.
“I’ll never forget 2012,” the ukulele virtuoso said in a phone call from Arizona, where he was on tour.
JAKE SHIMABUKURO AND FRIENDS
Where: Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: hawaiitheatre.com or 528-0506
“It’s actually the year of the dragon, and I was born in the year of the dragon. And when your year comes around, everyone says, ‘This is your year, this is your year!’ And it’s been pretty amazing what’s been happening.”
In a crowded field of significant, life-changing events for Shimabukuro, this year has indeed been full of milestones.
In 2012, Shimabukuro released his latest CD, “Grand Ukulele,” which he calls an “an amazing experience for me,” performing new and familiar works both solo and fronting an orchestra. And then there was the birth of his first child, Chase, with his wife, Kelly, a little more than a year after their marriage. Shimabukuro’s “just concentrating on touring for now — and being a dad,” he says.
“Life on Four Strings,” a revealing documentary that premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival and is now making the rounds at other festivals, was also released this year. Two years in the making, the documentary delved into some areas never seen in Shimabukuro’s ever-jovial presence on stage.
“The film covers even stuff that’s personal, like my parents’ divorce. I never talk about that stuff,” he said. “But I have no regrets about it. My parents, my whole family were at the premiere, and they had tears in their eyes, they were so proud.”
Perhaps his only misgiving was that his father did not get much face time on the film, but that was only because “he’s so camera shy,” Shimabukuro said.
SHIMABUKURO, who’s performed with major figures in music from Bette Midler to Yo-Yo Ma, considers his new album a major accomplishment because it was produced in California by Alan Parsons, who has worked on classics including the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in addition to leading the ’70s progressive-rock outfit The Alan Parsons Project.
“Grand Ukulele” features several styles of music, from classical to blues, flamenco and rock.
Parsons brought in an orchestra of 30 musicians to provide orchestral accompaniment for four of the tunes. They were all veteran studio musicians able to sight-read through the songs and get a clean version — no overdubbing was used for the album — in as few as three takes.
“I’m working with this all-star cast, and I keep pinching myself like, ‘Am I dreaming this?’” Shimabukuro said, telling how Parsons, a master of modern sound recording equipment, was able to make the 30 instruments sound like 80 yet still maintain a balance with the ukulele.
The album also shows off Shimabukuro’s trademark creativity as a musician. One song, “Missing Three,” came about because he was replacing the strings on his ukulele but was missing the third string. “I started playing around with the three strings, and then I wrote this piece,” he said. “It was the first thing I sent to Alan … and he said ‘This is beautiful. I can hear an entire orchestra behind it, it’s going to be great for the record.’”
“And of course I was excited, but a part of me was, ‘I was so proud that I could play this song with just three strings, but now there’s a 30-piece orchestra behind it,’” Shimabukuro said, laughing.
IT’S A LONG WAY from the days when Shimabukuro piped his uke through a series of guitar effects like fuzz box or reverb, rockin’ out in front of dancing crowds.
While that earned him a unique position among the formerly laid-back world of ukulele players, he said it got him too far away from the instrument’s original sound.
One particular incident brought him back.
“I went to go see a couple friends perform, and I had my ukulele with me but I had my pedal board in the car,” he said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you come up and jam a song with us?’ … And I just was so afraid to play without my pedal board. I ended up not playing with them.
“That’s when I realized ‘Hey, what’s going on? I’m not a pedal board player, I’m an ukulele player.’ That night I went home and decided, ‘I gotta learn my instrument again.’”
That woodshedding, combined with the techniques and styles he learned from childhood, paid off in a single historic moment that made its way onto YouTube.
Shimabukuro’s now-ubiquitous rendition of “My Guitar Gently Weeps” was initially prepared for mainland talent “showcases” — cattle calls held in convention centers where arts presenters would pop into a room, listen to performers for a few minutes and decide whether to book them for a show.
“I realized I need to come up with an arrangement where I can basically show everything I can do in one song,” he said. “That’s how I came up with this arrangement of ‘My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ It shows some of the bluesy licks, upfront, and then you see the sensitivity in the A section and then the B section opens up to the simple strumming of the ukulele, and then by the end you see the real aggressive strumming.”
It was, in a way, just as shocking as the first time Shimabukuro branched out from the standard, Hawaiian melodies. That was when he was a kid of about 11 or 12, already obsessed with ukulele, and began teaching himself the tune “More Than Words,” by Extreme.
“Everyone was learning that song on guitar,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I could play that song on ukulele.’ I kind of found the melody and then figured out the chords. I went back to school one day and played it for my friends, and they just looked and were just stunned. … That’s when I started listening to other things on the radio and seeing if I could pick up that melody.”
For Saturday’s show at the Hawaii Theatre, he’ll be performing solo ukulele and bringing along some special guests. He’s keeping their identity secret until the performance, except to say that they’ll be singing and they’re well-known local artists.
While Shimabukuro has branched out into work as a pitchman — he’s working on a couple of new ads for Farmers Insurance Hawaii — and publishing his own music, he considers this concert a significant step in his career path. With this show he’s learning on the job about management and promotion.
“I’ve always done concerts where I’ve played for other events,” he said. “I love playing all the time, but this is the first time I’m working with people to promote my own show.”