Jake Shimabukuro takes the ukulele to unexpected places

...including New Jersey. The ukulele virtuoso comes to Newton and Red Bank on April 8 and 12, respectively, on the heels of his collab album, 'Jake & Friends,' featuring Willie Nelson, Jack Johnson, Kenny Loggins, Ziggy Marley and more.

It’s hard to compute what Jake Shimabukuro can do on a ukulele. Perhaps because many of us aren’t that familiar with it outside of Hawaii tourism commercials or tender versions of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

But Shimabukuro takes his ukulele well beyond the limits of our collective perception. No matter what context he’s in—busking on the street, playing in front of a symphony orchestra, recording with Willie Nelson or performing at TedX—Shimabukuro makes the ukulele feel essential. 

His technical ability is unparalleled. His original compositions show us how much, from a songwriting perspective, is possible for the humble, four-stringed, aloha-tuned ukulele. His arrangements of covers often lead to new understandings of beloved songs like “Something,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And his live shows—including two in Newton and Red Bank this month—show audiences that there are no tricks to his musical feats, no shortcuts; just a great craftsman and artist at work, always looking to push further.

“There are still so many things that I wish I could do that I can’t do, but I think that’s always going to be the case, especially as you gain more experience and your creativity starts to evolve and you hear new things,” Shimabukuro says. “You have different ideas but sometimes the physical body can’t really catch up to the cognitive side. But that’s what makes it fun; you’re always striving to be able to learn, and develop the dexterity and the coordination to do certain things. It always feels good to do something that you couldn’t do before, and once you can do that and start to incorporate it, that in itself opens new ideas and new doors to explore.”

Shimabukuro’s been honing his craft for close to four decades; growing up in Hawaii, his mother gave him his first ukulele at 4 years old. He started small, plucking and strumming the same few notes and chords over and over for hours a day. He started taking formal lessons when he was a few years older, getting incrementally better, and eventually, he joined a three-piece band, Pure Heart, which earned acclaim in Hawaii and Japan.

The band broke up, and Shimabukuro found himself playing at artists’ showcases, trying to garner attention from the powers that be in the music industry as a solo artist. Given only a few minutes at these showcases to share his work, Shimabukuro focused on building arrangements to “capture the different expressions that you could make with the ukulele.”

Then, as now, Shimabukuro says his focus in creating arrangements for the ukelele is on balancing dynamics: soft and loud tones, harmonies and single notes, pure and unrecognizable sounds, obvious and abstract movements: “Those are all concepts I love playing with. … Whenever I’m working on an arrangement or performing a piece, those are the things that cross my mind.”

He worked up a version of George Harrison’s “While my Guitar Gently Weeps,” from the Beatles’ white album, changing the key to C, to get the biggest sound out of the ukulele. After masterful arpeggiated and single-line finger-picking early, Shimabukuro voices the chords in the verse and chorus for maximum and unique effect; minor and major keys in either create distinct scenes. Then there’s a bridge after the second chorus where Shimabukuro shreds so hard that it makes you wonder if he’s just crushing stones with his bare hands at night to get those muscles so strong.

Though Shimabukuro originally prepared that for an artist showcase, his arrangement ultimately got a much bigger audience via the early internet. As the story goes, someone had (unbeknownst to him) uploaded a video of Shimabukuro playing his version in a park to YouTube in 2006, and it went viral, before going viral was even really a thing. Soon after, big artists asked to record with Shimabukuro, and he went on to tour with Jimmy Buffett, release a few chart-topping albums, record with an orchestra, participate in a documentary about his life, record songs for TV and film, release a chart-topping jazz album… and here we are some 16 years later. 

Things blew up, to put it simply. His breakthrough might have been lucky, but his longevity is due to the fact that his ability is undeniable. Now that the rush has subsided a bit, Shimabukuro says he’s been able to move forward in his musicianship with more intention.

“I think when I was younger, it was always this feeling of [being] in a rush—I want to be able to do that and there’s this pressure to be able to get it under your fingers as quickly as possible,” Shimabukuro says. “But now that I’m older, I still have the desire to learn all these new things, but I feel like sometimes it’s nice to take your time and really enjoy the process.”

That perspective is evident on Jake & Friends, an album of collaborations on original and cover songs, with artists like Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Kenny Loggins, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler and more. Shimabukuro’s playing highlights the versatility of the ukulele throughout the album, placing it seamlessly into bluegrass, pop, jazz, reggae, jam and more. Recorded over two years at various studios, the 16-track album touches far-off corners of contemporary music, but is all centered in Shimabukuro’s ukulele playing. 

The album starts with a bright cover of Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun” with Jack Johnson and reggae singer Paula Fuga, that Shimabukuro says sets the vibe for the whole record—easy guitar, breezy uke, sun-drenched vocals… it’s definitely a vibe.

It’s also a good, familiar starting point for where Shimabukuro takes the ukulele on the album. Next is a prog-like jam, “Sonny Days Ahead” with blues musician Sonny Landreth that starts to distort those familiar uke tones. Then, by the fifth track, you’re hearing Shimabukuro’s ukulele go toe-to-toe with Billy Strings’ guitar on “Smokin’ Strings,” and you begin to lose track of which is which. It’s a song that builds to an organic apex, the interplay between the artists sounding so natural; like they’d been playing together for years. 

As it turns out, what you hear on the album was what was recorded the first time they’d picked up instruments with each other. 

“We went through this whole thing, having a great time and we kind of finished and laughed and said, ‘That was pretty cool, we should do something like that.’” Shimabukuro says. When they tried to replicate it, though, it “didn’t quite have that same feel, and we were overthinking it. Then the engineer said, ‘Do you want to come in and listen to the first thing you did?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘What? You recorded that?’

“That’s the first time we played it, and we didn’t know we were recording, so we just went for it,” Shimabukuro continues. “The ones after it didn’t have that same spontaneity. It was so perfect and I’m so grateful for that track because it feels like we were really able to capture a moment we didn’t know was being captured.”

From the unknowingly recorded to the masterfully produced, there’s the collab with Kenny Loggins, “Why Not.” It feels at home on Top-40 radio, an irresistible tune with a ukulele backbone and a list of adornments that kept growing and growing through the songwriting process.

“[Loggins] is so amazing in the studio because he hears everything in his head, and he’s so good at expressing it to the musicians,” Shimabukuro says. “He brought a bass player in, and sang the bass line to the bassist; then after that you could tell he was having all these ideas. He said, ‘What do you think about an accordion?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it man!’ That’s his genius, is being in the studio; the arrangements and how he hears the music. I was like, ‘I’m not gonna pass up this opportunity.’”

You’ll hear Shimabukuro integrate into other familiar artists’ work on the album. Like in “On the Road to Freedom,” a collaboration with Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule; it’s a 13-minute journey that sounds at home on a record of one of Haynes’ bands, with Shimabukuro’s slightly distorted uke weaving in and out. The next track—a cover of Jimmy Buffett’s melancholy “Come Monday” with the man himself—replaces the original’s dusty, twangy guitar fills with Shimabukuro’s bright, breezy ukulele, which makes the song sound somehow more like a Buffett tune than the original. 

The album also makes for a good entry point into Shimabukuro’s music; chances are you like one or several of the artists on it. But all you really need to get into Shimabukuro’s music is an hour or two to kill and access to YouTube, just watching the man do things on a ukulele others haven’t thought to do. 

You can also do it in person this month: Shimabukuro’s coming to Newton and Red Bank with Jackson Waldhoff on bass, so you’ll get a more streamlined ukulele experience at those shows. In fact, after experimenting with synthetically broadening the sound of his live shows over the years, Shimabakuro says he’s found a happy medium.

“Recently I’ve been able to find a balance between the pure acoustic sound and the affected sound with the effects and pedals and things like that,” he says. “I like having both of them in the live performance; to me, it’s just another way of making use of dynamics.” 

It’s obvious in talking to Shimabukuro that he’s eager and excited to get back on the road, and that he doesn’t take the journey he’s been on through music for granted, especially after the last few years.

“Having music concerts stripped from us, it made me appreciate these moments and be grateful. I’ve always been grateful for music and the things I have but even more so because it made me realize how much I love performing,” Shimabukuro says. “When I perform, the experience gives me so much joy, and it’s fulfilling to be able to share that joy with other people.”

Jake Shimabukuro plays The Newton Theatre in Newton on April 8 and Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on April 12. Find tickets here.