Hawaiian native Jake Shimabukuro is all about shedding new light on his instrument of choice, the humbleukulele. Jake performs tonight at House of Blues in Dallas.
Courtesy Photo

Jake Shimabukuro: Lessons taught and learned

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

April 14, 2008 - When he opens at Dallas’ House of Blues tonight, Jake Shimabukuro will share some of the secrets he’s learned along the way. At the same time, Jake will be teaching lessons about the versatility of the ukulele.

Saying Shimabukuro (She ma boo KOOR row) plays the ukulele is like saying Mozart composed lovely music, Monet painted pretty pictures or Beverly Sills could carry a tune.

The first thing the audience will notice about Jake’s virtuosity is the measured way he delivers a tune, be it an original composition or the cover of a well-known classic.

Early in his career, Jake, 31,played as many notes as he could in the shortest amount of time. Over the past few years, however, the fifth generation Japanese American has learned to slow down and let the song develop.

�I used to have performance anxiety,� he explained during a telephone interview Friday from his hotel room in Lake Charles, Louisiana. �I always thought the music had to be fast. I thought dead air (silence) was bad.�

It took a five-day visit to New York with a jazz pianist originally from Japan to slow him down.

�In 2005, Makoto Ozone (Oh-ZONE-e) invited me to his place in New York,� said the young musician. �For those five days, we did nothing but talk about music and play. It was the most enlightening experience of my life.�

Jake thought he as going to learn about jazz riffs and turnarounds during New York trip, but he says “what Ozone taught me was 100 times more valuable. He taught me to let the song breathe.”

Immediately after his time with Ozone, Jake’s performance anxiety disappeared. He had learned the beauty of silence.

Jake has also learned the importance of discipline. In 2006, he trained for a marathon in his hometown of Honolulu.

�My goal was not just to do the marathon, but to finish and then do a one-hour concert at the finish line,� he explained. �I was serious. I used a personal trainer, Yoga and a nutritionist.�

He must have done something right because he didn’t really suffer during the 26-mile run.

�You know that feeling they talk about, that runner�s high?� Jake asked. �Well, that�s real! I was so pumped up after I crossed the finish line, I could have run another race.�

But, true to his promise, he played a concert and then took the party to his house.

�I felt so good until about eight o�clock,� he said. �Then, my whole body shut down and I had to go to bed.�

For the audience, the most important lesson Jake teaches is an appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of the ukulele.

�The ukulele is an instrument for everyone,� he says. �That�s one of its many charms.�

Jake doesn’t mind one bit that most people associate the traditional four-stringed instrument from Hawaii with pop artists like Tiny Tim or vaudevillian Rudy Valee.

�The best thing about it all is that everyone comes to the shows with such low expectations,� he says with a laugh. �It takes all the pressure off.�

One of the most telling examples of low expectations came just the other night when Jake was booked on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Jake played his signature piece, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” originally written and recorded by Beatle George Harrison, who passed away in 2001.

�George Harrison is one of my greatest inspirations,� he explained. �I�m always honored to cover �Gently Weeps.� I never get tired of playing it.�

After Jake finished the number, something rare happened. O’Brien was speechless. Shimabukuro’s version of “Gently Weeps,” has that effect on his audience.

Jake’s arrangement of the classic is so powerful that it drew Harrison’s widow, Olivia, halfway around the world just to hear him play it.

�She came to see me play with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2006,� he said. �She came back stage and told me she loved my interpretation and that she wished George was still around because she thought we would get along. I was in another world.�

Jake is at home with music of all genres. He covers jazz, bluegrass, classical, blues and rock, all with equal aplomb. In fact, he’s so good at what he does that it’s easy to forget you’re listening to an instrument that’s just about 13 inches long, with only 4 strings.

His range is astonishing. He handles a pop hit like Cyndi Lauper’shit, “Time After Time” with the same finesse he uses when he tackles classical pieces like “Selections from Caprice No. 24.”

Of particular note is the smooth, sensual “Lazy Jane,” from the “Gently Weeps” CD. It makes you want to grab your best pal and do a slow turn across the dance floor.

As he shares his love of the ukulele and his passion for music, Shimabukuro hasn’t forgotten to have a good time along the way.

�I pinch myself every morning. I can�t believe all the wonderful things that are happening,� he said.

His fans count their blessings, too. One incredible song at a time.

Jake is on the road promoting “Gently Weeps,” released in late 2006 and an extended play CD called “In My Life,” released in 2007.

Both are available at his website, www.jakeshimabukuro.com, through iTunes or local retailers.

If you can’t make tonight’s show, pick up “Gently Weeps” or “In My Life.” Find a quiet moment, crank up your sound system, sit back and learn a musical lesson or two from the monumental talent of Jake Shimabukuro.

Who: Jake Shimabukuro.

When: 8:00 tonight.

Where: House of Blues – 220 North Lamar – Dallas. 214-978-2513

Tickets: $18.50

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