BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Jake Shimabukuro’s fantastic 2021 album, Jake & Friends, was a sprawling all-star affair that featured the uke virtuoso joining forces with a tremendous assortment of disparate musicians and singers, including Bette Midler, Billy Strings, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, Warren Haynes, and many more. His latest, Grateful, continues the “friends” concept, but this time out it’s a wonderful 22-song album featuring Jake with some of his favorite Hawaii-based musicians—friends, influences, and colleagues dating all the way back to his teen years at Kaimuki High School in Honolulu. A few are names that may be familiar to regular readers of this magazine, such as Herb Ohta Jr., Jeff Peterson, Bryan Tolentino, John Cruz, Raiatea Helm, Jake’s former Pure Heart trio members Jon Yamasato and Lopaka Colón, and Pomaika’i Keawe. Many were, frankly, new to me, but it is a uniformly impressive group of pickers, singers, and in some cases, songwriters.
The format is mostly intimate duets—just Jake’s Kamaka ukulele and another musician’s voice, acoustic guitar, ukulele, violin, or bass—recorded live in the studio (cleanly captured by engineer Michael Grande and producer Van Fletcher), with an occasional ukulele part or two overdubbed after the fact. Most of the songs are low-key ballads, many leaning in a mellow folk or country-ish direction, the tone of the lyrics overwhelmingly positive declarations of love and longing, cherished memories and aspirations. As Justin Kawika Young sings in the emotional title song, which he wrote, “And if it’s ten years or two, or a lifetime with you/ I’ll just be grateful for what I got.” (There are also two songs mostly in Japanese, by Raiatea Helm and Ron Artis II.)
Different favorites have jumped out at me each time I’ve listened to this album, but among those I’ve singled out to listen to repeatedly are: the dreamy opener “Sailin’,” with Hawaiian-pop icon Henry Kapono (of Cecilio & Kapono fame); Jake and Herb Ohta Jr.’s uke duet on a pair of old Hawaiian tunes, “Ahe Lau Makani” and “Wai’ale”; Pomaika’i Keawe’s beautifully sung “Ho’okahi Akua,” a song originally arranged by her legendary grandmother Genoa Keawe; Kawaika Kahiapo’s astonishing take on John Fogerty’s classic “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”; Jake and Jeff Peterson’s glistening instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah,” the two virtuosos trading verses on ukulele and guitar; Chris Kamaka and his son Christopher Kamaka Jr. sweetly singing a lilting song called “Dreams,” written by Eddie and Myrna Kamae (Chris has a voice for ages!); Nathan Aweau, on monstrous electric bass, trading licks with Jake, who shreds on electric and acoustic ukes on Peter Moon’s exhilarating “Kawika” (long a staple of Jake’s live sets); the jammy Spanish and jazz-tinged guitar-and-ukulele ramble with (and by) John Cruz called “Song for Sin”; the lovely violin-uke duet with Iggy Jang on Jake’s “Pianoforte” (also from the JS concert repertoire); and the mysterious album closer, “Eyes of the I’iwi,” intended to accompany an art installation by abstract visual artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides and videographer Tracey Niimi inspired by a trip the three of them took to the Big Island. But really, there are no weak tracks; each has its own personality and magic.
Jake has always been a generous and supportive musical collaborator, that is certainly the case here. He never hogs the spotlight, preferring to share it, and clearly revels in the important role of thoughtful fingerpicking or strumming accompanist. But when his time for a solo does come, look out! He is, after all, Jake Shimabukuro, second to none.