BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
A few years in the making, and delayed several times by factors related to the pandemic, Jake Shimabukuro’s greatly anticipated all-star album, Jake & Friends (on the JS/Mascot Records label) is finally set for release on November 12. Yay! The good news is that it was worth the wait. In a career that has been filled with grand successes every step of the way, this album just may be the vehicle that propels Jake into the music mainstream like never before, as his “friends” are a collection of musicians and singers spanning many different styles and a few different generations. It has the potential to become one of the best-selling albums by a Hawaiian artist in many years.
Of course, eclecticism is nothing new for the 44-year-old uke master; in fact, he’s famous for it. His recordings and performances have long included everything from Bach to traditional Hawaiian to rock classics to light pop to genre-defying originals. But consider the lineup of 16 artists who turn up on Jake & Friends: There are established superstars such as Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Michael McDonald, Yes singer Jon Anderson, Jimmy Buffett (with whom he has toured), Youngbloods leader Jesse Colin Young, Jack Johnson (paired with singer Paula Fuga),and Kenny Loggins; guitar titans Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, and the young phenom Billy Strings; great singers and players from the worlds of reggae (Ziggy Marley) and country (Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Vince Gill and wife Amy Grant, Lukas Nelson); plus Trevor Terndrup and Spencer Thomson from the rising Nashville band Moon Taxi. There are duets, trios, and full-band numbers (guitarist Dave Preston and bassist Nolan Verner from Jake’s current trio appear on several tracks); even a string quartet on one song. There are three Beatles tunes, fresh versions of classics like “Stardust,” The Rose,” and “Get Together,” three high-powered jam numbers (with one stretching out to 13 minutes!), and plenty of imaginative ukulele work on every track.
Jake and I were originally slated to talk about this album in early April 2020. He was scheduled to play a series of shows in Northern California, where Ukulele is based and where he has a large and faithful fanbase. But the tour fell victim to concerns about the surging coronavirus and was cancelled, and the album release was pushed back multiple times over the following year-plus. Jake still turned up at various virtual events last year and this, including his own wonderful Christmas in Hawaii special (which included appearances by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins) and a May 2021 solo show for AARP celebrating Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Then, during a window in the summer of 2021 when it seemed as though the worst of the pandemic was behind us, he scheduled several shows, including one at the beautiful Bankhead Theater in Livermore, California, about 40 minutes east from Ukulele headquarters. We were finally going to meet! Unfortunately, by the time Jake’s tour made it there in late July, the Delta variant was spreading everywhere, and though the concert itself was not cancelled, our interview earlier that afternoon took place on Zoom instead of in person.
No worries. It almost felt as though we were in the same room! I had spoken to him briefly a couple of times on the phone during the past year, so I already knew he was an unfailingly polite, thoughtful, enthusiastic, and genuinely humble individual. Though he is unquestionably the biggest star in the ukulele world, he doesn’t have the attitude that being top dog sometimes brings with it. Rather, he is generous in his praise for everyone he plays with, evincing a wide-eyed, “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” vibe when he considers his good fortune in getting to work with such a stellar cast on the new album. Our hour-long conversation was centered on Jake & Friends, but also ranged to a few other topics.
And his show that night at the packed, 500-seat Bankhead Theater (most were wearing masks) was sensational. Mostly, it was just Jake—hat turned backwards, wearing a t-shirt—and his trusty Kamaka tenor (and his effects pedalboard). He played an amazing variety of pieces: A medley of Hawaiian tunes; dynamite originals like “Dragon,” “Red Crystal,” and “Piano Forte” (his looping masterpiece); and crowd-pleasing numbers like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and Peter Moon’s marvelously infectious showstopper “Kawika.” There were times when his blazingly fast strumming built to an absolute roar that seemed to shake the building, and others where the delicacy of every fingerpicked note floated through the air like some beautiful mist. In the last quarter of the show, too, he was joined by his Trio bandmate Preston (who doubles as his road manager!) for several exquisite duets. It was quite a night; further proof (not that it’s needed) that there is no one in the ukulele universe quite like Jake Shimaukuro.
How did your Friends project begin and evolve?
It started a few years ago. My manager, Van Fletcher, and I were talking, and he said he would love for me to do a collaboration album with all these different artists. At the time I was thinking, “That would be awesome!” But in the back of my mind I was kind of skeptical, like “Wow, would this ever happen?” But luckily we were very fortunate that a dear friend, [Asleep at the Wheel leader] Ray Benson—a wonderful, wonderful person—took me under his wing a little bit. We got to do a few things together and he said, “This will be a great project,” and he agreed to help produce [some songs] on the album. The first thing he did was he said, “Man, I’ve got to get you with Willie Nelson!” Really? [Laughs] That was the first artist he talked to. He asked Willie if he wanted to do a track with me and Willie said, “Oh, yeah, sure!” I couldn’t believe it! So a month later we got together at a studio on Maui [where Nelson has a home], and it was cool. He wanted to do it live, so I just played and he sang [“Stardust”]. It was surreal sitting in the studio with Willie Nelson and recording together. Such an amazing experience.
I’ve heard Willie’s sort of a first-take guy.
The one that’s on the album is actually the second take. We ran through it once the night before, and then in the studio we played through it once, and of course we were recording everything just in case, and then he was up to doing a second take so we went for it. It was live and real and organic, and I think that set the tone for the rest of the recordings moving forward—just have everyone come into the studio and we record it live. There were a couple of exceptions where we had to record back and forth, where we weren’t actually in the studio together.
One was Jon Anderson and the other was Ziggy Marley. So we’d talk about the tracks over the phone—about the key and the feel and all that—and then I’d record my part and I’d send it to them and they’d lay their vocals over it.
That raises the question: What did Jon Anderson think of your arrangement of “A Day in the Life”? Because it’s quite different. To do anything different with a song that the whole culture knows note for note is really bold. For instance, I really love the way you don’t come back to the big instrumental crescendo at the end. It’s very cool and effective.
Thank you very much! I’ve been a huge Jon Anderson fan forever; I just love his voice. And when we talked about the track, he had some really great ideas about his vocal layering. There are four or five vocal tracks on there. The first pass I sent to him he thought was a little too slow, so I redid it at a quicker tempo. He liked that better and he started layering his vocals. He’d send it back: “What do think of this?” I’d be like, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing!” And he’d say, “Wait, wait, it’s not done!” And he went back and added some percussion stuff and a couple of other vocal parts. I was floored when he sent it back to me.
So, even though we weren’t in the studio together, it felt very collaborative. Jon was very involved with the decision-
making about the various parts and how he wanted it to feel. We’d be on the phone and he’d be singing me parts. I was pinching myself!
Of course, you’ve known Ziggy Marley for quite a while and have collaborated with him before.
I met him through Jack Johnson at a festival many years ago, and later when Ziggy came over for a concert in Hawaii, he invited me to play with him. And then he invited me to play some ukulele on his Love Is My Religion record [“Beach in Hawaii”]. Working with him again, schedule-wise, it was hard for us to really meet up.
When I first went to Hawaii 40 years ago, I was amazed at how much Jamaican—and “Jawaiian”—stuff you’d hear on the radio and being played live. There seems to be a real affinity between the two island cultures.
That’s true. Growing up in the Islands, our soundtrack was Bob Marley records. That’s what we were all trying to learn on the ukulele, along with Hawaiian stuff.
I was surprised to read that Michael McDonald is a uke player.
Yeah, he’s a really good uke player. He’s so musical in everything he does. I met him almost ten years ago when I was doing the Dave Koz Cruise [a popular cruise hosted by the smooth jazz saxophonist] and we were both guests for Dave’s show. So we got to play together on the cruise. Michael is just the nicest, most humble guy.
Tell me a little about the two big jam numbers on the album—one with the amazing Billy Strings, who is really blowing up in the bluegrass world and also in the jam-rock world these days, and one with Warren Haynes, who’s been a leader on the jam scene forever. Did you and Billy write the track you play together?
“Smokin’ Strings” is really just a jam. We came up with a little melody for the ballad part, and then for the second half we thought we’d just slam into a jam. That recording was our first take. It just happened spontaneously. After we were done, we were like, “That’s great! Let’s do a second take!” So we did and it didn’t feel as good, and Van [who is listed as a co-producer on the album] said, “You know, that first take was pretty magical.”
Billy is phenomenal. He’s such a great improviser and his feel and his chops are incredible. And he was such nice guy to work with. I think there was some talk about us doing some shows together, so this recording was a nice way for us to meet and get to know each other. RIght after that he got super busy, but hopefully we can do something together in the future. I’m so happy for him. He’s so passionate and dedicated; he practices constantly and works hard.
How about Warren Haynes? I would not have expected to see him on a Jake Shimabukuro album.
That was a dream come true! The way we met was, maybe five years ago he invited me to do his Christmas Jam—the [all-star benefit] concert he does every year in [Asheville] North Carolina. We had some musician friends in common so I guess he was a little familiar with me, so we got to jam on a few songs together, and he was so supportive and encouraging. So when we started working on this project, we asked him if he wanted to do something. Later, when I was playing on the East Coast, we worked it out so that we could stop in North Carolina and go into a studio where he normally records. Because I was on tour, I had my trio with me, and Warren was into all of us jamming together. That was incredible!
We knew the song [“On the Road to Freedom” by Alvin Lee, of Ten Years After fame] and we talked about how we were going to play it: “We’ll keep the intro open and go back and forth a little bit, and then he’ll start singing, and we’ll go through the tune, and at the end we’ll do an extended jam and fade it out.”
No, Jake, never fade it out!
[Laughs] Yeah! We were having so much fun going back and forth and back and forth. I got to use a sort of overdriven ukulele sound. I was scared—you don’t want to trade licks with Warren Haynes! [Laughs] But it was so heartfelt. The chemistry really came through. That’s the way he is; he’s so inviting.
That was a first take, too. We tried to do a second take, but that first take felt so free, and it was way longer. When we tried to condense it, it didn’t have the same magic. We sat there listening to the playback, trying to figure out how we could cut the piece down to six or seven minutes, but in the end decided there was nothing wrong with a having a long track on the record.
I was really impressed with Bette Midler’s track, “The Rose,” because, like in the case of Willie Nelson and “Stardust,” it’s a song she has probably sung countless times, but this version feels so fresh. I love how spare it is, letting her voice carry it, with just the ukulele and then the tasteful strings coming in. I know you’ve known her for a long time.
We did that recording right when she ended her run doing [the revival of] Hello Dolly. It was maybe two weeks after she’d finished, so she was in top form. When she came in, she asked what song we wanted to do together, and the song we usually play together is [The Beatles’] “In My Life”—that’s what we played for Queen Elizabeth; that’s what we played to close out Bette’s show in Vegas. So she asked if I wanted to do that, but I mentioned that “The Rose” was my mom’s all-time favorite song. And she’d never done a studio version of it. She only has the live version, the soundtrack version. It was so special for me, and the way Bette sang it was unbelievable.
In the case of Amy Grant and Vince Gill and that great version of “Something,” are they folks you met in Nashville when you were there for your Nashville Sessions album a few years ago?
My manager, Van, lives in Nashville, and he knew Vince. One night when I was in town, Vince was playing with the Time Jumpers down at the Station Inn and Van had talked to them about me coming to sit in. So we went down, and that’s the first time I played with them. I didn’t know what song we were going to play together, but Vince said, “Let’s do your ‘Gently Weeps’ arrangement!” At least it was something I was familiar with! That’s when I got to really meet him and talk with him, and he mentioned, “Oh, man, we should do something together!” I said, “Well, we’re kind of working on a collaborations record . . .” [Laughs] And when we were talking about songs, he loves The Beatles, too, so he mentioned “Something” and said, “I’ll see if Amy would be down with singing on it as well.” I had never heard it sung as a duet, and the way they did it was just so perfect.
Let’s shift gears a bit. I’ve done a couple of interviews where uke players have said, in effect, “I love teaching kids, but one problem is that everyone wants to be Jake. I don’t want to teach them to be Jake. I want to teach them the building blocks—slow and steady wins the race. Jake has set the bar so high and everyone thinks if they can’t get to Jake level in a year or two they’re too slow or not learning the right way.” I’m curious to know what your reaction is to that.
I don’t know. This is the first time I’m hearing something like this. I feel like players today definitely have this great advantage because they have the internet and access to YouTube and things like that. I think it’s wonderful. When I started, we didn’t have all these ukulele players posting videos or writing instructional books. We had to listen to cassette tapes and stop and rewind, stop and try and figure it out. Or you would learn how to play from people in person, whether it was Roy Sakuma or Herb Ohta, Jr. or all these people who I was able to actually sit in a room and learn things from. And along the way, they can correct certain habits—“Oh, don’t do that!” [Laughs] They correct you right away, versus if you’re learning from a video, sometimes you might be doing something you don’t know is wrong because there’s no one to give you that instant feedback. But at the same time, you can learn at such an accelerated pace now.
I feel there are so many young players that can run circles around anything I was doing at their age. I was a very slow learner. I feel their technique and articulation—it’s phenomenal. There are so many young virtuoso players right now, and I think it’s because they have access to all these videos. You can watch a video of James Hill playing technical things, or Benny Chong, Herb Ohta, Jr., or even Ohta-San [Herb Ohta, Sr.]. I wish there were more videos of Ohta-san! He was my biggest inspiration for playing the ukulele. Back then he was doing classical arrangements, he was doing smooth jazz stuff, he was doing standards, and Russian folk tunes. He was doing that in the ’60s and ’70s. He was the first guy to do “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the ukulele. But back then there wasn’t much footage of him playing. Just his albums, which were hard to find.
I always thought Eddie Kamae was one of the best and most influential players from that era. I still haven’t heard any other players who did quite what he did.
Well, Ohta-san was Eddie Kamae’s student. The lineage is Eddie Kamae, then Ohta-San, and then Roy Sakuma. For me, those were my three heroes growing up. I was a direct student of Roy. And then, with Uncle Eddie and Herb it was more listening to their records and watching them play in person.
Is it fair to say that the next thing in the uke lineage that really caught on was the Sunday Manoa?
Oh, yeah—Peter Moon. Completely different style.
I love that song of theirs that you play, “Kawika.” It sounds like a cross between traditional Hawaiian and the Ventures.
I was very fortunate growing up in Hawaii because there were so many gifted players, so many that never recorded albums or performed, but were just unbelievable musicians. I got to learn from some of them, as well.
Do you still do many workshops or much teaching?
Yeah, in fact we did one in Reno yesterday. It was a community outreach thing with the Reno Art Town series. We had 50 or 60 people in the park outside and we did an hour workshop—it was everyone from kids to senior citizens who came down. It was socially distanced. I do enjoy workshops and I love showing people who have never played the ukulele before little things where they can immediately start playing. You see them light up and it’s such an awesome feeling. I love sharing that with people and trying to connect with them that way.
You’re so eclectic in what you play. When I was watching the AARP virtual concert you gave, I was surprised at how much classical material you played. It’s great hearing more and more ukulele players dipping into that repertoire. I know you’ve played a little Bach here and there for a number of years, but I’m wondering if that’s an area you’re looking into even more now.
Yes, definitely. During the pandemic I was working on some Bach pieces, like one of the Cello Suites. It’s something I’d like to explore more. Of course, John King [the late classical ukulele pioneer] was so great in that area. His campanella technique and all that was so inspiring.
[Mandolinist] Chris Thile was also a big inspiration, hearing him doing Bach pieces. I love that stuff. But you really have to put in the time to pull off that music. One of these days I’d love to put aside some time and really dig into it. I’d love to do some more of the [Bach] two-part inventions. I did “Invention No. 4” for this documentary and that kicked my butt! [Laughs] It’s extremely challenging music. I have such admiration for classical musicians because the time, the thought, the effort that is put into playing that kind of music . . . It’s like an Olympic athlete, the amount of dedication it takes.
I’m curious: Are there guitarists who have influenced your sound as a uke player?
There are so many. Recently, one of the guitarists I’ve been listening to a lot is Julian Lage. His tone, his feel, his phrasing, his ideas. . . He’s able to be very out-there and at the same time very accessible. And then people like Pat Metheny, Charlie Christian. Wes Montgomery was another I loved listening to. Growing up, I used to love listening to [flamenco guitarist] Carlos Montoya. I listened to Charlie Byrd—my dad had a record. Earl Klugh, because of the nylon strings.
Did you fall in love with any of the heavy rock cats, like Clapton and Hendrix?
Of course! But that came later. I got introduced to that side of things when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, and up until that point I don’t think I really understood electric instruments yet. But once I saw a video of [Eddie] Van Halen playing, I thought, “Oh my gosh, all that sound is coming from the strings of the guitar!” [Laughs] And when I heard Jeff Beck, I fell in love with his tone, just the sound he would get out of his guitar. It really grabbed me. There was something very human about his sound that I loved.
You’ve been employing electronics with your uke for a while, of course. Have you ever had any disgruntled folks walk out on you, like Dylan when he went electric at Newport?
[Laughs] I was in a band called Pure Heart [a Hoku-award winning trio in the late ’90s], and right around the time we disbanded was when I started experimenting with some pedals. And I remember one show we played, I brought this Boss overdrive pedal and I told my lead singer, Jon [Yamasato], “You’ve gotta hear this! It’s so awesome!” So we played this show and I think I had the pedal on half the time, because it sounded so cool to me. I remember after the show I looked at Jon and said, “Hey, what did you think of that new pedal?” And he said, “Please don’t bring that pedal back!” We laugh about it today because I realize that back then it was so noisy and unmusical the way I used it. So we probably had some people walking out that night.
As much as possible I try to use these things sparingly, especially now. I love the sound of the natural ukulele, of course, but I also like experimenting because when the voice of the instrument changes so drastically, it makes you play differently because the sustain is different, the attack is different, the tones you’re hearing are different, so it makes your phrases and the ideas you come up with different than if you were playing “clean.” So I like using those things because they bring out different sides of me.
The most important thing is to be in the moment and sensitive to what’s happening in that moment, and to make adjustments so you can be tasteful and musical. Which is not to say I’m always tasteful and musical! [Laughs] But that’s the goal.
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