Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am
 

Some musical instruments are regarded as trivial, or even ridiculous. The ukulele is frequently singled out for ridicule. A common snort about the 'uke' range is that it's an accompaniment to grass-skirted hula dancers or played by Tiny Tim, strumming Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

It's true that former Beatles George Harrison and Paul McCartney used to get together and play music hall tunes on their ukes, and McCartney performed the intro to Something on one at the Harrison memorial concert, but until Jake Shimabukuro came along, that was about as much credibility as the instrument could aspire to.

The ukulele hails from Hawaii, and it has more expressive capability than it's given credit for - particularly in its longer-scale tenor and baritone incarnations.

Shimabukuro, 32, grew up in Hawaii and has been playing ukuleles since he was given his first soprano at the age of four. He now plays a tenor and has been called 'the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele'. In terms of the way he has extended its technical possibilities, that's no exaggeration.

He is also its Davy Graham. Although he plays mostly his own compositions, his stylistic range encompasses jazz (he's a popular jazz festival attraction) blues, pop, rock, funk, flamenco and classical music as well as traditional Hawaiian and Japanese tunes.

He is aided to a limited extent by effects units, but he creates most of the magic with his extraordinarily fast fingers.

Shimabukuro belongs to the first wave of musicians to have attracted international attention through an appearance on YouTube. He paid tribute to Harrison in 2006 with his version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which was extraordinary in its virtuosity, expressiveness and dynamic variation. It has been viewed almost 3.5 million times.

Since then Shimabukuro has played with artists ranging from Jimmy Buffet to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but he really comes into his own solo with his ukulele.

He has been a solo recording artist since 2002, but his latest album on Hitchhike Records, Live, is probably his best to date and certainly the best summary of the remarkable things he can do with four strings and two octaves.

Shimabukuro has chosen what he considers to be his best performances from gigs in Nigata, Toyama, Oita and Yokohama in Japan, and New York, Chicago and Boulder in the US. The recordings are assembled, however, with some spoken introductions, as though they are all from the same gig.

The choice of cover tunes says a lot about his range. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is revisited, Chick Corea's Spain gets a rousing flamenco jazz treatment, and he reclaims the late Michael Jackson's Thriller for its composer, Rod Temperton, dispensing with the theatrics to lay bare a fine funky tune with plenty of scope for a skilled improviser.

The string bending lends some tunes a bluesy quality and his playing often recalls that of classical or flamenco guitarists, but without their bass string resources there is an additional tension to it.

Much of his playing is something of a high-wire act, but it is invariably musically inventive as well as technically daring.

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