“That one hurts my hand a little bit,” Jake Shimabukuro confided as he shook his fingers to cool them down after playing his original composition “Blue Roses Falling” a couple songs into his early-evening set at the fabled Iron Horse nightclub in Northampton, Massachusetts. Watching Shimabukuro cast his four-stringed spell for about an hour and a half, you’d be surprised he could single out just one song that stresses his digits, because they all seem plenty physically challenging to play. And yet, he somehow makes the process look relatively effortless.
A shorthand soundbite might be to call Shimabukuro the Chris Thile or Yo-Yo Ma of the ukulele, although such suggestions only serve as a starting point for understanding and appreciating the nature of his instrumental virtuosity. The other shorthand that has been proliferated, via YouTube, is that Shimabukuro is an uncommonly adept instrumental interpreter of well-known popular staples – which is true (one need only check out his rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at Strawberry Fields in New York’s Central Park, now nearing 3 million views), but it doesn’t paint the larger part of the artist’s creative picture.
Indeed, most of what Shimabukuro played in this eleven-song set – largely reflecting a new live album he’s releasing on April 14 – was original material. Sure, he acknowledged his debt to YouTube by playing Harrison’s song, and he also delivered his ambitious rendition of the Japanese classic “Sakura Sakura” (which he prefaced as “an attept to transform a four-string Hawaiian ukulele into a thirteen-string Japanese koto”). But the focus was on Shimabukuro’s own work.
“Blue Roses Falling” was probably the best of those, in terms of sheer melodic grace and sophistication; a close second was the set-closer, “Third Stream” (which Shimabukuro mentioned he’d recently performed on Conan O’Brien’s show). In between, he sprinkled the set with a sampling of tunes which highlighted the variety of styles and genres he has incorporated into his music.
“Dragon”, he explained, was a sort of collision between his love for old Bruce Lee movies and the guitar playing of Eddie Van Halen. “Piano Forte” was an attempt to transcribe a composition written entirely on piano to the ukulele. “Trapped” used an intriguing rhythmic structure that Shimabukuro credited to the great percussionist Ralph MacDonald, who Jake got to know through touring with Jimmy Buffett’s band.
Best of all was “Orange World”, which he wrote after touring with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and jamming with the likes of Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and the aforementioned Chris Thile at bluegrass festivals such as Telluride. As with the adventurous work of all those players, the song had roots in bluegrass but branched out far beyond by the end of its run-time, finally circling back at the very end with a clever little pick-and-grin tagline.
Jake Shimabukuro performing “Orange World” at the Knitting Factory, 12-30-07