june 2009

Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhike Records

Unlike some other vaunted, supposed practitioners of the ukulele (read Nellie McKay strumming rudimentary chords to silly songs), Jake Shimabukuro keeps finding new avenues of exploration in the instrument's textural and sonic possibilities, an approach dramatically illustrated by the virtuosity and soul on display in his new assembling of 20 live performances. Recorded mostly at different venues in Japan, with a smattering of cuts from shows in the U.S. (Chicago, New York, Colorado, San Francisco), Live feels like one long, exhilarating concert, so seamless have the tracks been melded on disc. In the pop-ish "Me and Shirley T.," introduced by Jake as "here's one about being a kid and drinking one too many Shirley Temples," he takes off from a carefree, buoyant, singsong melody with propulsive chopping effects interspersed into more stormy territory (this must be when the alcohol takes hold), using woozy bent notes; frantic, muted, chopped chords; and wild-eyed muted runs up and down the neck that begin to sound like rolling thunder, before reprising the lighthearted melody that suggests the ongoing revelry he hinted at in his introduction. It's a typical Jake performance, honoring the great Hawaiian masters whose adventurous approach to the instrument he has embraced and furthered, and melding it to a sure sense of compositional integrity cognizant of the irregular, free flowing, seemingly improvisational rhythmic thrust of capriccio compositional style. Indeed, the all-instrumental collection (musically instrumental; the personable Jake talks plenty on the disc) does offer up a live version of one of his recorded favorites, Bach's "Two Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor," a fleeting 60 seconds of tender, cascading, fleetly rendered noting in which he demonstrates his unerring command of nuanced picking, and at other times he shows off his sense of humor—consider the Spanish-flavored, darting dynamics he deploys as a prelude to set up an arpeggio-rich version of, yes, Bowie's "Let's Dance," which comes off more like something Antonio Carlos Jobim might have crafted than anything from the Thin White Duke. Following this is a bit of whimsy by way of his own tribute to the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," making of it a theme-and-development piece, periodically returning to the readily identifiable chorus after using the verses for a, well, thrilling exploration of polyrhythmic, percussive picking and flailing—a real bravura performance. For sheer athletic prowess, the speed-picked, howling lines, driving rhythmic thrust and contrasting delicately picked ostinatos of "Wes on Four" is hard to beat—a coupling of sublime, virtuoso technical mastery to impeccable compositional craftsmanship in which the human element of heightened emotions is always in play. And yes, near the end he performs a beautiful, evocative version—with an invigorating new, bluesy prelude—of the song that put him on the map on these shores, George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with a few new wrinkles added here and there as Jake gently coaxes the melody out of hiding and into the full light of day. This is a master at work. - David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024