Is That You, Jake?

Jake Shimabukuro has a new look, and his new Dragon album takes the ukulele into rocky and uncharted territory

Bill Mossman
Friday - September 30, 2005
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Yes, that’s Jake
Yes, that’s Jake

Emerging from the shadows cast in the back of his label company, Hitchhike Records, ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro quickly navigates his way to the front of the office for a photo shoot, where the late afternoon sun in Kapahulu is filtering through vinyl blinds and casting incongruous lines across his face. Suddenly, the light reveals something for the first time since he burst onto the local music scene nearly a decade ago: Shimabukuro is not only different - he’s unrecognizable. Gone are a few things as synonymous with the virtuoso as his lightning-fast licks - namely, the prescription glasses, the closely cropped hair and the trademark aloha shirts. Even the meat that he spent the last few years recklessly packing on - courtesy of one-too-many late night pizza runs or burrito and chili gorgefests at Zippy’s following a gig - has disappeared from his bones, stripped away by a newfound commitment to exercise and a highly disciplined diet replete with those once-dreaded vegetables.

His hair is long and jelled high. And his eyes, minus the spectacles he’s faithfully worn since junior high, are midnight black, perfectly matching the equally dark T-shirt and jeans he is wearing.

Just for a few seconds, this MidWeek reporter wonders whether this is in fact the Jake Shimabukuro - the multi-Hoku award-winning musician who once caused heavy metal guitar god Steve Vai to exclaim, “Man, your playing is off the hook!” - or some imposter? But then, as if on cue, Shimabukuro begins to furiously tap away at his uke’s strings in one of his signature and magical sweeping runs along the fret board, while the photographer’s camera motor whirs and the light bulb flashes - and suddenly, all is recognizable again to this reporter, all is right again in the ukulele universe. It’s like the scene in the ‘90s movie Hook, in which one of the Lost Boys scrutinizes the foreign facial features of the adult Peter Pan, searching for a hint of familiarity before finally removing Pan’s glasses and exclaiming, “There you are, Peter!”

Indeed, the Pan of the Uke is back with a brand new album, a brand new look, but, of course, the same unbridled passion for life. It’s a trait the 28-year-old Shimabukuro, much like the green, spandex-clad fairy-tale hero, will probably never outgrow.

“Whether it’s been playing at a high school pep rally, or recording with Pure Heart, Colon or as a solo artist, every time something would happen in my career, I would always think, ‘This is the greatest!‘And just when I’d think it couldn’t get any better, things would seem to go up another notch,” explains the once hyperactive musician, who prior to immersing himself in music as a youngster would channel his excessive energy into such activities as gymnastics, acrobatics, swimming and wrestling. Today, while admittedly more calm, it’s still not unusual to find him - when not plucking away at his uke - passing the time by doing handstands!

“I’m sure that if I were in elementary school today, my doctors would have diagnosed me with ADHD and had me on all sorts of medications,” he admits with a chuckle. “But I’ve always been that way - full of energy and always excited about what was coming next in my life.

“I can still remember when I was with Pure Heart and we were about to perform our first big gig at KCCN’s Birthday Bash, and all of us were just standing there screaming, ‘Oh my gosh! We made it!’ And then when we released our first album, we were all thinking, ‘Wow! We have an album!’ The funny thing is, the album was never meant to sell in stores. The whole reason for it was we needed a demo to give to restaurants so that we could gig there.”

Obviously, gigs are no longer a problem for the accomplished musician, who’s performed at such venues as the Great Woods in Boston, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, B.B. King’s Nightclub in New York and the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. Nearing the end of his current tour, which recently allowed him a brief stopover in Hawaii following a monthlong stay in the Orient, Shimabukuro is now gearing up for the state-side release of his latest solo project, Dragon, scheduled to hit record outlets Tuesday.

Initially released in Japan back in June, Dragonrepresents the artist’s fourth solo album and first attempt at producing his own opus from start to finish.

“The biggest difference between this project and my prior albums is that, on my past albums everyone recorded separately,” explains Shimabukuro, who recently signed on with the William Morris Agency, the world’s largest talent agency. “On Dragon, the whole rhythm section and myself recorded together. On top of that, we recorded this one on analog vs. digital. With digital, it’s so easy to edit out mistakes on computer. But with analog, you have to be more exact. It forced me to treat the recordings as a live performance, which brought out more spontaneity and a completely different energy.”

Although born in the Year of the Dragon, Shimabukuro found at least one other reason to name his latest project after the mythical reptile.

“Growing up, I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee. I mean, I even got to name my own brother, who’s five years younger, after Bruce Lee!” he exclaims, laughing. “See, I’ve always admired his philosophy toward the martial arts, and tried to pattern my own philosophy of music after his. Like, even though Bruce Lee started out as a traditional martial artist, he eventually began to incorporate a lot of the different styles - or their own strengths as he saw them - into his own.

It was a fusion of styles and that made him so way ahead of his time.

“For me, I’ve always approached my music that way. I started off as a very traditional ukulele player playing traditional Hawaiian music. I still love that music, and I still love to play it when I get together with my friends for little kanikapila sessions. But I never felt that I needed to be defined by the styles of music I played. I love songs. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a jazz piece, or a blues piece, or a rock piece, or a classical piece. For me, it was always about the melody.”

In many ways, this new Shimabukuro is a lot like a gunslinger in the Old West, with his trusted instrument holstered at his side as he bravely seeks to expand the frontiers of ukulele playing, all the while willingly taking on all doubters. Interestingly enough, his father Derrick named him after “Big Jake” McCandles, a character played by John Wayne in the 1971 cowboy flick Big Jake.

“For myself, I really want to prove that the ukulele can be accepted as a rock instrument,” says the man who’s been heavily influenced by such legendary axe men as Jeff

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