Jake Shimabukuro received his first ukulele at four-years-old. It began a lifelong relationship. Now, four decades later, and more than 20 of that performing and recording professionally, the ukulele virtuoso has shown his unending and impressive abilities as a solo artist, guest artist and improviser with a limitless curiosity to explore genres – rock, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk and classical — on over 30 live and studio recordings.
“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 said. “If you don’t know the rules, you don’t need to follow them, and then nothing can hold you back.”
With bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston his 2020 release, Trio, featured him in a prog rock state of mind. He follows that up with the years-in-the-making Jake & Friends. The 16 tracks feature collaborations that span the musician’s interests and influences including a delicate ukelele-and-vocal version of “Stardust” with Willie Nelson, an acoustic reimagining of Moon Taxi’s “Two High,” “Come Monday” with longtime supporter Jimmy Buffett and jamming excursions with Billy Strings (“Smokin’ Strings”), Sonny Landreth (“Sonny Days Ahead”) and Warren Haynes (“On the Road to Freedom”).
Shimabukuro’s breakthrough occurred 15 years ago with the YouTube video of him playing a cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park. His love of The Beatles’ catalog led to additional covers as well as entire album, “Across the Universe,” released only in Japan. On “Jake & Friends” he’s joined on three more ukulele-led versions — Ziggy Marley (“All You Need Is Love”), Jon Anderson (“A Day in the Life”) and Vince Gill and Amy Grant (“Something”).
“Looking back on it all now, it feels like a dream. 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.”
My conversation with Jake takes place shortly after he returned home after a three-month tour, sheltered in the “bubble” to avoid COVID, and performed five “Christmas in Hawaii” shows.
JPG: How did holiday shows go?
JS: Everything went great. It was nice to be back home. We did 46 cities, I think. Then, we came home and finished up in Hawaii. Brought the whole crew out here to Hawaii. Everyone had a great time. One of the guys is from L.A., one’s from Nashville and one’s from Oklahoma, and one’s from Portland, but originally from Hawaii. Everyone enjoyed spending some time in Hawaii after a long tour.
JPG: So many artists during 2021 either had protocols in place and even with those someone in the band or crew got COVID and the tour would be shut down. How challenging was it traveling to so many cities?
JS: We just remained in our own bubble and we didn’t do any meet-and-greets after the show. We partnered with all the venues so everyone had to be vaccinated or they had to show a negative COVID test. Some of the venues actually had the COVID testing site either next to the theater or inside the theater, which was really nice in case someone showed up and didn’t know what they were supposed to bring.
There was only one time where we got out of our bubble and that was when I sat in with Billy Strings at that Pennsylvania show (11/19/21, Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, Wilkes-Barre, PA). For that one we all got tested to make sure we were all negative before we joined them.
Of course, there were a lot more things to be aware of and it wasn’t quite the same because there was a lot more things put in place. But to be honest, we were just so grateful to be performing in front of a live audience again that, all of that, it didn’t matter. We were just so happy to be playing music and to be connecting with an audience again. It was emotional. The first few shows back…man. That connection is so powerful. You take it for granted until it gets taken away from you.
JPG: Speaking of Billy Strings, that brings us to the new album because you worked with him on the track “Smokin’ Strings.” To bring it back to COVID, the whole album was recorded pre-COVID, correct?
JS: Everything was recorded pre-COVID except for three more tracks we did during the lockdown. We did “Come Monday” with Jimmy Buffett, the Kenny Loggins track, “Why Not,” we recorded our part together pre-COVID but we were adding some background vocals and things like that. just overdubs. So, it was easy to finish up during the pandemic. The third one was, shoot, I can’t remember…It was either the Jon Anderson one or the Ziggy Marley track. Yeah, it may have been the Ziggy Marley track.
JPG: Jon Anderson and Ziggy Marley were the two that you did not do live in-person due to schedules or something like that.
JS: With the Ziggy Marley one, I think what happened was I recorded my uke part as a demo to send to him so he could check it out and make sure everything was cool. But, since we couldn’t get together, he ended up singing his part during the pandemic. I think that’s what it was. It’s all such a blur now. It was such a crazy time.
JPG: Let’s go all the way back to the origins of the album. Your intention was to record sporadically here and there with the idea that eventually, once you assembled enough tunes, it would come out?
JS: Yeah. It started four years ago. My manager, Van Fletcher, and I sat down and we’re talking about doing a collaborative record. It was actually his idea. He told me, “You should do a friends collaborative record” and he started throwing out some names. I remember I was thinking, “Oh, this is never going to happen.” I was like, “Wow! That sounds awesome but how are we going to get all these people?”
What really served as a catalyst to get the project going was when Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel), who’s been a longtime friend, agreed to do this, to co-produce the record with me. The first phone call he made four years ago was to Willie Nelson. Two months later we were in the studio, we recorded “Stardust.” Once we recorded that, it just gave the album a lot of momentum.
I was on tour at the time. Pre-pandemic, we were always touring. Whenever I was going to be in a city or an area where there was going to be an artist that we were working with that’s when we would record. When I was in Austin, we recorded Ray Benson’s track. When I went to North Carolina, we recorded with Warren Haynes. In L.A. we recorded with Bette Midler. There were quite a few tracks that we recorded in Hawaii, too. Of course, the Jack Johnson and Paula Fuga track but also the Jesse Colin Young track because he lives on the Big Island, Michael McDonald, Lucas Nelson, even Billy Strings. Billy Strings flew to Hawaii and we did the track there.
JPG: You worked with so many people previously that I’m surprised Willie Nelson was the first person to work on this. I thought that you would do something with Jimmy Buffett or someone else you already knew before asking others.
JS: There was always a plan to do it with Jim because he’s been supporting me for forever but it was just trying to find the right time to do it. We talked about it because right before the pandemic, I toured with them up in Europe. We did Paris, London and all that. Then, we thought after we get back, the dust settles and we’d figure it out but then the lockdown happened.
JPG: When you put together your initial list of artists, were they based on the person/band or based on the songs themselves?
JS: We started with a list of musicians that I already had a relationship with because we’ve already recorded together or toured or performed together at some point. Obviously, Jimmy Buffett…he’s the reason I know half of these people on the record, right? That’s how it started. But when Ray Benson came in, the first thing he said was, “Man, you and Willie need to do something together.” And I was like, “Wow! That would be awesome!” But I had never met Willie Nelson. Ever. So, he made the phone call, and Willie was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It was literally two months later and we were in the studio recording that.
All of the songs, whoever we reached out to, if they were open to doing it, I asked them, “Is there a song that you would want to do?” because I know they’re so busy. I would rather it be on my time where I have to learn the piece and adjust to whatever key they want to sing it.
Everyone threw out ideas. “Oh, I always wanted to do this song,” or “Let’s do this because I’ve been doing it on tour.” And then, Billy Strings and Sonny Landreth were the two that when I asked them, “What do you guys want to do?” They were like, “Man, let’s write something together. Let’s figure out something in the studio.” That was fun. To be able to collaborate and write songs together that was awesome. Such a great experience.
JPG: The Billy Strings collaboration features an amazing jam that you guys did on the first take and the Sonny Landreth tune is so impressive as well.
JS: His tone! I wish there was a better video of us playing that because I don’t think people realize how much sound is coming out of his guitar. He’s not overdubbing. It’s just one track of his guitar. When we tracked it, I started with the acoustic ukulele. So, we tracked the entire song from beginning to end with the acoustic uke and his guitar. Then, I had my stomp box that I could step on to get my overdrive when I wanted some on the leads.
But there was one section where we did overdub our solos. That was in that middle section. We wanted to trade back and forth but we needed the rhythm to keep going, so we figured we do our solo trading on an overdub. But, if you listen, especially at the very beginning and the very end of the track, all those harmonics and the pads, and all these crazy sounds, he’s doing all of that with his hands and palming the bridge and pushing on the instrument. I think if people saw that, it would blow their mind because what he does…I’ve never seen anyone do that. And the sounds that he gets, they’re just so beautiful, they’re so angelic and his tone is just phenomenal. He’s always been one of my favorite, not just guitar players but musicians. He’s so incredibly gifted.
JPG: It reminds me of Jeff Beck.
JS: He’s another one of my all-time favorite musicians too because he’s another guy that makes the guitar do things that you would never get a guitar to do.
JPG: And I believe Beck, maybe, has one or two pedals, if that.
JS: That’s the thing. Sonny wasn’t using any pedals at all. It’s crazy the sounds that he gets out of that. That’s why I think it’s not so obvious, all the intricacies and the things that he’s doing unless you’re sitting in front of him and watching his fingers and you’re thinking, “How is all that coming out?”
So, the whole time we’re recording, I was smiling from ear-to-ear. As we’re playing together, I’m watching his fingers and I’m shaking my head the whole time. “How is he doing that?” But, it is so inspiring.
There’s definitely so much magic in the Billy Strings tune. The reason that track is so special is because we didn’t know we were being recorded. I know for myself, when I know I’m being recorded, I play different. It’s like when you know someone’s taking a picture of you or someone’s taking a video of you, you become more self-conscious of what you’re doing and what you sound like.
What was so beautiful about that moment is we didn’t know we were being recorded. That’s why there’s no video footage of us playing it because we were just goofing off, playing around. We were like, “Man, that’s cool. Alright, let’s go for a take,” That’s why that’s so special for me because we got to capture a moment that we didn’t know was being captured.
JPG: The album has a lot of moments like that — the intimacy of tracks like “Stardust” with Willie Nelson and “The Rose” with Bette Midler and even “A Place in the Sun” with Jack Johnson and Paula Fuga but also the jamming aspect and letting the music play out to where it wants to go whether it’s with Billy Strings or Sonny Landreth or Warren Haynes — that gives it a flow of not the same thing again and again.
JS: Thank you. The Warren Haynes one, too, it was never meant to be that long but we thought we would just play it out because we thought we were going to fade it out or do something fun. We didn’t have an ending because we thought it was going to be a fade out, so we just played. I swear when we finished, we looked at each other and were like, “Oh man, that was cool.” We walked into the control room and then the engineer was like, “Man, that was awesome. But that was 14 minutes long.” And we’re like, “No way!” Honestly it felt like five or six minutes. I seriously thought it was about six minutes, so we’ll maybe shave off about a minute or a minute-and-a half-off.
But, we listened. I remember I got to sit right next to Warren, he and I sat at the control board. They played it back, and he had his head down listening really intensely. When it was done, we looked at each other and he was like, “Oh, man.” I think I said something like, “Wow! I think we should just leave it all in.” He looked at me and was like, “Me too. I don’t know what to cut out.” And I told him that, because for me, I’m a huge Warren Haynes fan, so to cut any of his playing out, I would be doing a disservice. I asked, “Do you have any problems with it being 14 minutes long?” And he’s like, “No.” My manager was, “Let’s just leave it in.” That’s why we kept the entire recording, and I love it. It’s for people who are really big fans of his playing. He does some unbelievable stuff in his solos, and it’s epic.
JPG: Going back to the Sonny Landreth track, it reminds me of the Eric Johnson tune “Cliffs of Dover.”
JS: It’s funny that you mentioned that because I was trying to come up with a theme for us to start, just to have a foundation, something to work off of when we got into the studio. So, I sent him three ideas because that’s usually what I do. I record it on my phone and then I text it. The first two I sent him were…I thought they were okay but they were both in minor keys. And I remember thinking, because Sonny Landreth has a song called “Brave New Girl” and it’s in a major key. It’s one of my favorites. One of my favorite things is that he jams on it. It’s insane how he plays it.
But, one of the ideas that came to me was “Cliffs of Dover” because how it’s so uplifting and I realized, first of all, it’s in a major key. So, I thought, “I’m going to try to come up with something more in a major tonality and see where it goes.” And I know Sonny loves those odd time signatures. That beginning theme is what I came up with on the ukulele (Jake sings that part) and I sent it to him and he texted me right back. “That’s the one.”
When I got into the studio, we had some idea to build on, and we started with that A section, and then we built a B section and a bridge. It was funny because as a contrast to the major thing, he wrote that minor part in the middle, too. I guess it was something that he was messing around with earlier but it worked out great because it was in A minor and my part, I just happened to write it in A major. So, it was a really nice transition.
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