It’s not often you get to hear the world’s foremost ukulele prodigy. That is, of course, unless you’re Jake Shimabukuro, in which case you get to hear yourself every day. At the Hangar Theatre last Friday, ears on both sides of the equation united to witness his artistry firsthand. The Honolulu-born star has singularly redefined the capabilities of this humble four-stringed instrument for new generations of listeners and, as evidenced by the handful of fans waiting to get their ukes signed after the show, players as well. As Shimabukuro himself said at one point between songs, “I bet you’re not having as much fun as we are up here.” To be sure, he gave back two parts passion for each of appreciation lobbed from an audience that was smiling ear to ear. Shimabukuro nourished his talents across a spectrum of 17 tunes, which together lent insight into the versatility of his craft and, more importantly, the dramatic spectrum of his art.
Of the many facets that one might admire about Shimabukuro, for me it was the emotional integrity of his gentler tunes, of which his delicacies were every bit as beguiling as the virtuosic showstoppers — and all of it enhanced by his musical partner Nolan Verner on electric bass. Two originals in particular, “Blue Roses Falling” (played solo) and “Ichigo Ichie,” were all the more impressive for their melodic strengths. His powers blossomed tenfold in their soil, releasing a spring-like fragrance not through the technical flourishes that inspired obligatory whoops of appreciation in surrounding pieces (though these were certainly worthy of our astonishment), but in the seriousness of his musicianship. Whether playing something meticulously through-composed or improvising a solo as he edged closer to jazz, every note counted. This was further evidenced by the compactness of his chosen tunes. Case in point was an arrangement of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, being a staple of his live repertoire, occupied a realm all its own. As with his take on “Come Together” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” his ability to turn the familiar into something fresh and, above all, personal was assuring. The latter signature song was more poignant than ever in light of how far his career has come since a video of him playing George Harrison’s timeless ballad went viral in 2006.
With an ear for thick description, he gave every narrative a beginning, middle and end, sometimes riding on comforting and familiar chord progressions while at others venturing into atonal territories. Not to be forgotten, bassist Verner added a slick undercoat to the tried and true, and proved himself an ideal corollary to the star attraction’s pyrotechnics. Verner emphasized the harmonic adventurousness of Shimabukuro’s “Blue Haiku” and “Pianoforte,” while the improvisational whimsy of “Travels” showed the duo at its tightest. On the adventurous side of things, they offered a heavy reduction of Hawaiian composer Byron Yasui’s ukulele concerto called “Try Tone,” in which arpeggios intertwined around minor-second harmonies for a formidably tactile feel.
Even the more pleasant songs, like opener “Galloping Seahorses” or the smattering of island songs, including the popular “Kawika,” showed his equal footing across moods, from reverie to rock-out. Verner kept effortless pace throughout and enlivened the Rodrigo y Gabriela-esque “3rd Stream” with flexible infrastructure. Another highlight was Shimabukuro’s classic “Dragon,” which found him going electric for a cathartic solo. Still, at the end of the night, it was forlorn tunes (“Celtic Song” or “143,” for example) in which his distinctions truly shined, for by their colors was painted a landscape where memory, and its ever-changing palette, are paramount.
Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]