February 21, 2020

Exponents of prog ukulele are thin on the ground…

There are some instruments that seem to lend themselves to certain types of music – you know, electric guitars and drumkits were made for rock’n’roll, while it’s difficult to imagine an orchestra without a violin section. Other instruments are rare in certain circles; hard rock harpists are in short supply, as are blues piccolo players. Exponents of prog ukulele are likewise thin on the ground, but that’s not the fault of Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro. Since his rendition of The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps went viral on YouTube in 2006, his virtuoso ukulele playing has seen him share stages with everyone from metal shredders Paul Gilbert and Marty Friedman to pop Princess Cyndi Lauper and classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Jake Shimabukuro

His output is prolific, starting with bands but then since 2002 mainly solo. The latest offering, a 47-minute opus named Trio, sees him teamed with his current touring partners, guitarist Dave Preston and bassist Nolan Verner, creating a brilliant sonic soundscape of varied styles and genres.

This instrumental set kicks off with the remarkable When The Masks Come Down, with shades of Eye OF The Tiger, Stevie Nicks’ Edge Of Seventeen and The Police, before we are treated to a hard-rocking metal riff. Without drums, it can’t be called hard rock, but the elements are there, and it looks for a moment as if rock is going to form the backbone of the set, especially as second number (confusingly named Twelve), veers more into Classical Gas territory, with classical chordage over a back line reminiscent of Sky.

Resistance carries echoes of While My Guitar Gently Weeps in the descending chord progression, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations in some of the bubbling synthy effects, but the first true highlight is presented in track 4, simply titled Lament. Opening with solo, harp-like ukulele arpeggios, punctuated by a lone bass note, this sweet ballad has overtones of Tubular Bells, with some definite Pink Floyd slide guitar effects wading in later. It is perhaps much more what one would expect from a ukulele, but it really is beautiful.

Red Crystal diverges into Latin rock with maracas thrown in, and it’s clear that the trio can play anything they like, in any style or genre, but it will always contribute to the coherent whole. Their cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here morphs and changes over the 5 minutes allotted to it, but the ambience never lets up until the wowling echo at the end with acoustic chords underneath to finish.

Left to right: Dave Preston (guitar), Jake Shimabukuro (ukulele), Nolan Verner (bass)

Fireflies sees the guys trying their hand at the blues, with a complex arrangement that keeps dropping back into a satisfyingly Chicago vibe. A glorious 13-track collection ends with another cover, with a guest singer this time – Stevie Nicks’ vocals in Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide are realistically recreated by Rachel James of Denver-based folk-rock outfit Dearling.

It’s incredible to realise just how much recorded material the boyishly-youthful Shimabukuro has produced, until it’s realised that he is in fact in his mid-forties – but even then, it is still a tremendous amount of work, much of it only released in his main market of Japan. Still, there is plenty of material generally available. Dip a toe in these waters and it’s likely you’ll find yourself seeking out more.