Several years into his recording career, Jake Shimabukuro has flatly lain to rest any skepticism that his quest to remake the image of the ukulele might have been a fleeting fantasy. The fourth-generation Japanese-American Hawaiian set out to bring respect to the instrument, so often treated as a novelty, and along the way he’s commanded a devoted audience of believers. His first live album cherry-picks 17 tracks delivered to those faithful in Japan and various American venues, and spans nearly as many stylistic variations. Ranging from a minute-long extrapolation of a Bach theme to a shimmering take on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to a one-man reimagining of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” handled with grace and a decided absence of cheekiness, Shimabukuro, working solo throughout, navigates his uke masterfully and with boundless imagination.
Rescuing the instrument from the toy/joke status conferred upon it by the likes of Tiny Tim and Don Ho, Shimabukuro achieves complex melodics and harmonics unimaginable before on the mini four-stringed axe. And speed—on Chick Corea’s “Spain,” Shimabukuro spills out lightning licks one would expect from a particularly agile mandolinist but which still sound positively freaky emanating from a ukulele. While his cover material allows for the instrument’s possibilities to be reconsidered, where Shimabukuro makes his most positive mark is in his own compositions, an area in which he can chart new directions. “Me & Shirley T” (“about being a kid and drinking one too many Shirley Temples”) is a brisk, flamenco-like study in obliterating rhythmic walls while the closing “Blue Roses Falling,” a quiet, airy meditation, is akin to a bold John Fahey epic.
Like Béla Fleck on the banjo, Jake Shimabukuro is making something up as he goes along—not too many can say that anymore.