Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Jake Shimabukuro’s Ultimate Ukulele
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Jake Shimabukuro’s Ultimate Ukulele

jakeshimabukuro.jpgThink “ukulele” and you’ll invariably get a quaintly exotic image in your head (and the wrong pronunciation – it’s “oo-koo-leh-leh,” not “you-koo-leh-leh”): warm sun, swaying grass skirts, coconut bras, colorful cocktails with umbrellas, and palm trees and a beach in the background.

It’s true, the ukulele is a stringed instrument that was born in Hawai’i (albeit it has its actual origins in a Portuguese instrument that was brought to the islands by 19th century sailors) and given its name, which means “jumping flea” in Hawai’ian. And it’s also true that the ukulele, which basically looks and acts like a miniaturized, four-string guitar, has helped spread Hawai’ian music and culture for a century, since Hawaiian music first caught the fancy of mainlanders during a 1915 exposition in San Francisco.

But the cute little uke isn’t just a tool for strumming up tourism to Honolulu.

It’s a surprisingly versatile instrument with a variety of tones and voices – if you know how to coax its full ability. One musician not only coaxes an incredible range of riches from his ukulele, but he plays all kinds of music, not just Hawai’an music.

In fact, Jake Shimabukuro is reshaping the image of the ukulele altogether, and setting some awesome standards for musicians who are sure to follow his lead. He can play blistering rock and roll of the type you might expect from a heavy metal guitarist, or Jeff Beck or – dare I say it – Jimi Hendrix. But he can also play gentle finger-picked folk and pop melodies, jazz, reggae, classical and everything in between these extremes.

His fingers seem to find a full palette of possibilities in the ukulele’s abbreviated frets, as if he were playing a regular-sized guitar. Over his handful of CDs, the Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has expanded the language of his chosen instrument. He has at times picked and strummed his ukulele amidst a full rocking band and held his own in the production.

With his new recording, “Gently Weeps,” he comes full circle and showcases his ability to entrance listeners with his ukulele alone.

The album opens with his take on the George Harrison track, “While My Guitar gently weeps,” which features everything Shimabukuro knows, from deft lead work to agile finger-picking and energetic and incredibly precise (and fast) rhythmic strumming.

He also offers other covers, some of them surprising: “Ave Maria,” the pop standard “Misty,” the traditional Japanese folksong “Sakura” (he has a huge and growing following in Japan) and even a finger-picked version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Really.

The performances are warm and mostly gentle, but sometimes jaw-dropping. The musician, who’s just about to turn 30, is pretty amazing. He’s rightfully an ambassador not only of Hawai’ian artistry, but also for his mostly overlooked instrument.

My one nit with “Gently Weeps” is the addition of five “bonus tracks” at the end of the CD, which are all recorded with other musicians and break the solo soundscape of the first dozen songs. One, with buzzing metal electric guitar, sounds downright obscene compared to the rest of the disc. It woulkd fit better on Shimabukuro’s 2005 release, “Dragon.”

The album ends with a vocal version of an earlier pop track, “Wish on My Star,” featuring singer Jennifer Perri.

Overall, fans won’t be disappointed and anyone who’s curious about Shimabukuro’s genre-busting work will find that the ukulele doesn’t have to always evoke hula dancers and tiki torches.