The Bela Fleck of the ukulele

Jake Shimabukuro jams with Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Strings, and more on ‘Jake and Friends’

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Kayoko Yamamoto

In the world of stringed instruments, the four-string ukulele has a small and kitschy lute that was associated with the likes of the late Tiny Tim and vaudeville. More recently, it’s gotten a slightly cooler image as artists ranging from actress Zooey Deschanel to musicians Nellie McKay and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder have been using the uke to express themselves. 

But the biggest advance is coming courtesy of Jake Shimabukuro. Not unlike what Bela Fleck has done for the banjo, Jake Shimabukuro is doing the same for this humble instrument associated with Hawaii and tropical-themed shirts. And while the aforementioned Deschanel, McKay and Vedder are serviceable players, Shimabukuro has spent the past two decades as a solo artist, giving the uke a far higher pop culture presence. 

Expect this elevation to go next level with the release of Jake & Friends, a 16-track project that finds the Hawaiian native pulling a Frank Sinatra-type Duets-like collaboration with an array of artists ranging from Willie Nelson and Bette Midler to Ziggy Marley, Michael McDonald and Jimmy Buffett. It’s a labor of love whose seeds were planted four years ago by Shimabukuro’s agent Dan Fletcher.

“Dan was telling me that I had to do a Duets kind of record and then he started naming some artists,” Shimabukuro recalled in an early November interview. “I thought it would be awesome, but in the back of my head I never thought it was going to happen. The thing that really got the ball rolling for us was when Ray Benson (the lead singer of Western swing band Asleep At The Wheel) agreed to co-produce it with us. The first phone call he made was to Willie Nelson, who said he’d do it, and two months later we were in the studio recording ‘Stardust.’ Once we had that track down, it gave the album credibility and momentum. Before we knew it, we did tracks with Michael McDonald and Bette Midler. We started it pre-pandemic, but finished it during the lockdown.”

Opening with an ethereal reading of Stevie Wonder’s “A Place In the Sun,” which finds Shimabukuro providing a musical bed for fellow Hawaiian Jack Johnson and guest vocalist Paula Fuga. Jake & Friends allows the soft-spoken instrumentalist to flex his musical muscles across a broad swath of musical genres. “Smokin’ Strings” finds him doing a delicate back-and-forth with bluegrass virtuoso Billy Strings that eventually morphs into a foot-stomping explosion of fleet-fingered fretting from both parties. “Elsewhere” delves into canons of Jimmy Buffett (“Come Monday”) and Bette Midler (“The Rose”) with help from the song’s respective authors.

And as someone who broke onto the scene when a performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral back in 2006, Shimabukuro does a deep dive into The Beatles songbook on cuts featuring Marley (“All You Need is Love”), Anderson (“A Day In the Life”) and Vince Gill and Amy Grant (“Something”). It all adds up to an experience that has left Shimabukuro both grateful and humbled.

“Each [session] has its own story and memorable moments,” he said. “In general, what I really love about this album is how diverse it is. As a fan of the ukulele, I just love how it’s being presented in all these different styles with these iconic voices and artists from different genres. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would hear a ukulele played with Sonny Landreth’s guitar. Or Warren Haynes. Or Jon Anderson’s voice. And it doesn’t even have to be me playing. For my own ears in my lifetime to hear the ukulele with that sound still just blows my mind.”

Shimabukuro’s relationship with the uke goes back to his mother placing the instrument in his hands at the tender age of four. In his early 20s, the fifth-generation Japanese-American found himself a part of the award-winning local trio Pure Heart alongside percussionist Lopaka Colón and guitarist/vocalist Jon Yamasoto. 

By 2002, Shimabukuro had signed a multi-album record deal with Sony Music Japan International. It was a major career inflection point for the young musician that struck him when the ink was barely dry on his contract. 

“When I signed my first record deal—it was a seven-album recording deal back in 2000 with Sony Music in Japan,” he said. “I think that was the first time I felt that pressure, knowing I had to come up with seven albums and I’d never done a solo record before. It was the first time I felt pressure that there was this other side to it and that it wasn’t just for fun. And while I had deadlines and new responsibilities, it was such a great learning experience. There were times when it was hard, challenging and frustrating, but I learned so much. I had a really great A&R person working with me at Sony who pushed me, gave me ideas and songs to listen to and would suggest I try this or that.”

Like many of his musical peers, the pandemic turned out to be the one force of nature that forced Shimabukuro to slow down. With two young children at home and a wife who works in health care, he didn’t find himself playing for the first five or six months of the lockdown. 

“It was the first time in my life where I wasn’t thinking about playing,” he said. “There were just so many other things going on and your focus really shifts.” 

But with his children shifting from remote learning and returning to school, the siren song of the uke called him back.

“After a certain point, I’d be up late at night and I couldn’t get to sleep,” he said. “I have a little home studio and I’d go in there and start writing and recording myself play. That really helped because I’m not good about sharing my feelings and talking about how I feel about things. Music helps me to navigate those things so I feel like I’m expressing them somehow. I did a lot of playing by myself and it really helped me through a lot.”

Shimabukuro is wrapping up the remainder of the year going on his first Christmas-themed tour. He’s currently back on the road and shifting from doing a two-man ukulele-bass show and expanding into a four-piece that includes The Voice contestant Thunderstorm Artis on vocals and guitar. As someone who has fully embraced and thoroughly missed the synergy of playing before a live audience, Shimabukuro is embracing the experience. 

“I’ll never forget that our first show back was in Clearwater, Florida,” he said. “I walked out there and started my first song. When I was done and hit the last chord, everybody was cheering and it hit me. I hadn’t felt that in so long and I started crying because it was so emotional. I remember later on in the night, I joked around that I was so grateful to be performing in front of a live audience again because I forgot what that was like. It comes back to enjoying the kind of connection you can make with the audience. Just the joy you can share through music, creativity and being in the moment.”

On the bill: Jake Shimabukuro: Christmas in Hawaii. 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 14, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder. Tickets: $35-$45.