Matt Blackett: Jake Shimabukuro at the Warfield 12/3/11

Mr. Jake rolled back into town this past weekend, although not in exactly the same fashion as most musicians who are unquestionably at the top of their field.

Mr. Jake rolled back into town this past weekend, although not in exactly the same fashion as most musicians who are unquestionably at the top of their field. Jake rolls with a tour manager, a lighting tech, a Leon D.I., a Peterson StroboFlip tuner, a ukulele, and that's it. With that modest crew and gear collection he plays to a packed house at the historic Warfield Theater. Prior to his set, however, he’s a wide-eyed kid, standing on that hallowed stage, gazing up into the balcony, feeling the energy of all the amazing acts who have graced that stage before him. “I’m really nervous,” he laughs.

We head below the stage to the dressing room for the private lesson he has agreed to do for GP. He pulls out his signature Kamaka uke and tunes up, explaining that his strings are purposely below pitch by several cents. “I’m experimenting with bringing a new set of strings up to pitch gradually,” he says. “I think it will extend the life. It’s easy to deaden nylon strings if you bring them up to pitch or above pitch too fast.” In the lesson, he demonstrates some of his signature techniques, his style of voicing chords, and how he runs scales. Look for complete video on this site soon, but as a sneak preview, I’ll tell you that he played some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever heard from him. He whipped off a Bach two-part invention that was so intricate, so precise, and so beautiful that I found myself laughing—not because it was funny but because his performance practically compels pure, spontaneous emotion from the listener. I know, I know...I’m laying it on pretty thick. Except I’m not.

After the lesson it was time for soundcheck and Jake played the whole time, almost compulsively, whether he was up in the house or not. When they brought the mains up, it was interesting to see several of the Warfield workers stop what they were doing to watch, high praise from folks who are forced to hear soundchecks every day of their lives.

By showtime, the Warfield looked to be completely full, which is downright bizarre for a solo ukulele player. He came out and dug into “143” off his latest record, Peace, Love, Ukulele. In that tune, and pretty much every subsequent one, he pulled a kaleidoscopic array of tones, timbres, and colors from an instrument that looks like a toy to the uninitiated. At various times you can hear harp, pizzicato violin, classical guitar, and Japanese koto in his playing (the latter of which he showcased beautifully in the traditional “Sakura, Sakura”). Between tunes Jake would “talk story,” giving insight into why he does what he does, how he writes his tunes, and how he got where he is today. He played a bunch of originals as well as perfectly chosen covers. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” featured lilting lines and great dynamics. A Wes Montgomery tune sported complex voicings and a swinging solo. His current version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is obviously still a huge fan favorite, but it was his take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that truly brought the house down. He somehow nails every instrumental and vocal line of that ridiculously complex tune, and he does it effortlessly and unerringly. When he played the “Galileo” lines, plenty of people laughed, probably for the same reason I laughed during his Bach piece (although his Galileo bit is actually pretty funny).

Since I suspect not many people read my editor’s letter in the issue of Frets from a few years ago when Jake was on the cover, I’m going to quote what I said about him here:

Some players are so good they make you want to quit playing. Some are so good they make you want to go home and play all night.
Go see this guy. He’ll make you want to play.