Think â€œukuleleâ€ and youâ€™ll invariably get a quaintly exotic image in your head (and the wrong pronunciation â€“ itâ€™s â€œoo-koo-leh-leh,â€ not â€œyou-koo-leh-lehâ€): warm sun, swaying grass skirts, coconut bras, colorful cocktails with umbrellas, and palm trees and a beach in the background.
Itâ€™s true, the ukulele is a stringed instrument that was born in Hawaiâ€™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 â€œjumping fleaâ€ in Hawaiâ€™ian. And itâ€™s also true that the ukulele, which basically looks and acts like a miniaturized, four-string guitar, has helped spread Hawaiâ€™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 isnâ€™t just a tool for strumming up tourism to Honolulu.
Itâ€™s a surprisingly versatile instrument with a variety of tones and voices â€“ 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 Hawaiâ€™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 â€“ dare I say it â€“ 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 ukuleleâ€™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, â€œGently Weeps,â€ 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, â€œWhile My Guitar gently weeps,â€ 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: â€œAve Maria,â€ the pop standard â€œMisty,â€ the traditional Japanese folksong â€œSakuraâ€ (he has a huge and growing following in Japan) and even a finger-picked version of â€œThe Star-Spangled Banner.â€ Really.
The performances are warm and mostly gentle, but sometimes jaw-dropping. The musician, whoâ€™s just about to turn 30, is pretty amazing. Heâ€™s rightfully an ambassador not only of Hawaiâ€™ian artistry, but also for his mostly overlooked instrument.
My one nit with â€œGently Weepsâ€ is the addition of five â€œbonus tracksâ€ 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 Shimabukuroâ€™s 2005 release, â€œDragon.â€
The album ends with a vocal version of an earlier pop track, â€œWish on My Star,â€ featuring singer Jennifer Perri.
Overall, fans wonâ€™t be disappointed and anyone whoâ€™s curious about Shimabukuroâ€™s genre-busting work will find that the ukulele doesnâ€™t have to always evoke hula dancers and tiki torches.