While versatility for any musician is impressive, what's most remarkable about Jake Shimabukuro's transcendent skills is how he explores his seemingly limitless vocabulary, whether it's jazz, rock, blues, bluegrass, folk or even classical, on perhaps the unlikeliest of instruments: the 'ukulele. Over the past two decades, Shimabukuro has proved that there isn't a style of music that he can't play, and on his superb release, 'Jake & Friends'—featuring collaborations with many of music's biggest names—he proves that there's no one he can't play with. Jonathan Graham chats with Jake in the exclusive Gi feature.
Responding to the urgent calls of his fervent imagination, the Hawai'i-born virtuoso has taken the 'ukulele to points previously thought impossible—and in the process, he's reinvented the applications for this small and somewhat underappreciated four-string instrument—causing many to call him "the Jimi Hendrix of the 'ukulele."
Humbly, the good-natured musician, who first picked up the 'ukulele at the age of four, says, "From the time I started playing, I was just doing what came naturally and what felt like fun. I love all types of music, so I never thought, 'Oh, I can't play that on the 'ukulele.'" He laughs and adds, "If you don't know the rules, you don't need to follow them, and then nothing can hold you back."
Shimabukuro's incredible journey has taken him from local phenom to YouTube sensation, from playing tiny clubs to headlining the world's most prestigious concert venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House. He's performed on the biggest TV shows and has released a string of award-winning, chart-topping albums. Just recently, he was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as a Member of the National Council on the Arts.
It's fair to say that Shimabukuro has picked up more than a few admirers – millions of them, actually – but it wasn't until he began his latest album that he discovered how many of his fans were, in fact, his very own musical heroes.
'Jake & Friends' isn't the first album on which celebrated guests appear with the main performer, but in terms of size and scope, and considering the sheer number of legendary stars who graciously loaned their inimitable talents, it can only be compared to benchmark duets albums by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and it's a shining testament to just how far the singularly gifted Shimabukuro has come.
Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, Jon Anderson, Ziggy Marley, Moon Taxi, Warren Haynes, Jack Johnson, Jesse Colin Young, Ray Benson & Asleep at the Wheel, Sonny Landreth, Lukas Nelson, Billy Strings – Shimabukuro's own head spins when looking over his high-wattage guest list. "I have to pinch myself when I see those names on my own album," he says. "It's like, 'Did that really happen?' Making the album was a real challenge, but I'm deeply honoured that all of the artists agreed to record with me."
Two years in the making, 'Jake & Friends' started out with a modest idea of featuring perhaps two or three guest stars, but the concept quickly grew into an album comprised of Shimabukuro, at times backed by his regular band members (bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston), working with a different guest artist on each track. "Sometimes we recorded an original tune, and other times we did a cover of something the guest wanted to do," he says. "And other times, we did a new version of one of their own songs, which was incredibly thrilling."
Willie Nelson was the first artist to take part, and significantly he chose his signature song, "Stardust," which he first recorded over 40 years ago. The uniquely sublime pairing yields magical results – Shimabukuro's delicate 'ukulele lines form an intimate foundation for Nelson's achingly beautiful vocal. "I was so nervous the night before we cut it," Shimabukuro admits, "but Willie put me at ease right away. I think once we got that cut finished, I was ready for anything that came next."
Shimabukuro had already become acquainted with Bette Midler – back in 2010, the two performed for no less than Queen Elizabeth II, no less – and when he reached out to the Divine Miss M (who, as it turns out, was also born in Hawaii), he requested that they re-imagine his mother's favourite song, "The Rose." Midler sounds heavenly on this stark yet shimmering version of her Golden Globe-winning classic, and Shimabukuro's graceful, poignant playing serves as the perfect accompaniment. "Recording that song with Bette was a huge deal for me," he says, "because I knew my mother would love it."
For years, Shimabukuro has had the pleasure of touring with one of his musical heroes, Jimmy Buffett, and one of his favourite parts of their concerts is performing "Come Monday," Buffett's first smash single from 1974, with his friend and mentor on stage. So it was only fitting that the two reprise their delightful rendition on 'Jake & Friends.' "I love 'Come Monday' so much, and I've been blessed to perform it with Jimmy many times on stage," Shimabukuro says. "Jimmy is such an amazing writer, singer and musician, and I don't know any song that transitions like this one. It was a real thrill to record it with him."
"Why Not," written and sung by multi-platinum hitmaker and movie soundtrack king Kenny Loggins, is a deliciously upbeat slice of soul-pop with hooks for days and an effervescent ukulele solo that will set pulses racing. "Working with Kenny was a blast," says Shimabukuro. "We started off doing things simply, but once we got going, Kenny wanted to try out different ideas, and I just let him go. Watching him do his thing was a real education in record making."
Teaming up with the popular Nashville alt-rock band Moon Taxi, Shimabukuro revisits the group's 2017 hit, "Two High," and he even coaxes singer-guitarist Trevor Terndrup, a fellow' ukulele enthusiast, to join him on the instrument. The new version is quieter and sparser than the original, but there's drama in its softer moments – the intuitive interplay between the musicians pulls you right in and carries you off. Inspired by the universal peace sign for hope, it's a sunny and breezy balm for our troubled times.
"Recording with Moon Taxi was such a blast," says Shimabukuro. "When I first heard the song, I had to hear it again. It was so uplifting and positive – exactly what we wanted for the new album. Trevor has an incredible voice, and he can shred on the 'ukulele! And [guitarist] Spencer Thomson holds down the rhythm and makes everything groove. It was such a joy to collaborate with them."
Fans longing for all-instrumental bliss will revel in the aptly named "Smokin' Strings," which Shimabukuro wrote and performed with bluegrass guitar sensation Billy Strings. What starts out as a lilting, elegant dance suddenly explodes into a red-hot hoedown. And who else should turn up on Shimabukuro's original composition "Sonny Days Ahead" but blues guitar icon Sonny Landreth? Fun and friendly, this folk-laced track is a stirring, transporting musical exchange between masters.
One of Shimabukuro's dreams was to jam with Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule guitarist and singer Warren Haynes, and on 'Jake & Friends,' he got his wish, as the two throw down in epic ways on their fiery reading of the blues-rock classic "On the Road to Freedom." The 1973 original by Alvin Lee and Mylon LeFevre ran but four minutes, but in the nimble fingers of Shimabukuro and Haynes, it's now a dizzying 13-minute showcase of bravura musicianship capped with Haynes' gutsy vocals. "It wasn't supposed to be that long," Shimabukuro says with a laugh, "but as we were mixing, I just said, 'Warren's playing is so good – let it go!'"
The Beatles always loomed large in Shimabukuro's repertoire (he scored one of his first hits with his resplendent version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), and on 'Jake & Friends' he covers not one, not two, but three Fab Four gems. He teams with famed Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley (son of reggae icons Bob and Rita Marley) for a scrumptious, lighter-than-air rendition of "All You Need is Love" that resonates just as strongly today as when it first appeared over 50 years ago.
Shimabukuro and Yes singing legend Jon Anderson pull off something of a masterstroke on "A Day in the Life." Utilizing very spare instrumentation – Dave Preston on guitar and Evan Hutchings on drums – the track explodes with the same hallucinatory wonder of the Beatles' original as the two main players explore the outer limits of their distinctive musical gifts. "In the studio, we went wild," Shimabukuro explains. "There's four tracks of my 'ukulele and seven tracks of Jon's vocals. Jon's voice turned it into a new kind of epic."
George Harrison's "Something" stands as one of the greatest love songs ever written, and now one of the most moving versions exists with the combination of Shimabukuro and country stars (and real-life husband and wife) Vince Gill and Amy Grant. The two singers don't just vocalize; they bring their own shared romantic experiences to the lyrics. And the sumptuous instrumental passage – first 'ukulele then Gill on guitar – is art in its highest form.
The treasures continue. With guitarist Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Shimabukuro dives into the jazzy side of Cream on "Wrapping Paper" (the first song the psychedelic power trio ever recorded). Benson also turns up on a transplendent take on "Go Now," made famous by the Moody Blues in 1964, on which Shimabukuro and Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald complement each other on 'ukulele. "People might not know that Michael is an incredible 'ukulele player," Shimabukuro says. "A few years ago, we bonded while playing 'ukulele together, and here we had a brilliant time improvising, with Michael playing a baritone ukulele. I love the way it turned out."
Willie Nelson's son, Lukas, a successful musician in his own right, recorded several songs with Shimabukuro, but for 'Jake & Friends' the two decided on a remake of "Find Yourself," Lukas' own soulful hit that he recorded with his band Promise of the Real and superstar Lady Gaga several years ago. "Lukas and I had such an incredible time together," Shimabukuro raves. "What people might not know about him is what a flawless musician he is. Every time he sings or plays guitar, he's perfect. He never has to do anything over. He's a consummate pro."
'Jake & Friends' is bookended by two tracks sure to cast beatific spells on listeners. There's "A Place in the Sun," a hit for Stevie Wonder in 1966 (and the first time he featured social commentary in a song), which was suggested to Shimabukuro by his chart-topping friend and fellow Hawai'i-born Jack Johnson. With Shimabukuro's whimsical ukulele playing supporting them, Johnson and guest vocalist Paula Fuga absolutely sparkle. For the album's luminous closer, there's the timely and timeless "Get Together," which Shimabukuro performs alongside Jesse Colin Young, who with his band the Youngbloods turned it into a worldwide anthem of peace, love and unity in 1969. "It was really special recording this song with Jesse," says Jake. "Obviously, I'm too young to remember 'Get Together' when it first came out, but it's been an important message through the years, especially today."
Creatively, 'Jake & Friends' is Shimabukuro's most ambitious project to date, and the two years-plus that went into it were an immense logistical undertaking. During pre-Covid times, tracks were recorded in Maui, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Nashville, Austin and other U.S. cities, depending on guest artists' touring schedules, and there were even a few cuts recorded remotely during lockdown.
"Looking back on it all now, it feels like a dream," Shimabukuro says with a mixture of pride and relief. "My manager, Van Fletcher, worked really hard to map out this grand plan, and what do you know? We pulled it off. I grew up fantasizing that one day I might be able to meet my musical heroes, and here I am on my own record playing with them. That's remarkable beyond words. I'm so fortunate to have had this experience, and I can't wait for people to hear it. I think they're going to be able to tell that I'm having the time of my life."
Jake Shimabukuro's 'Jake & Friends' is out now via Provogue/Mascot Label Group.
Jake Shimabukuro — 'Jake & Friends' Tracklist:
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