Ever inventive ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro loves surprising audiences by performing unique arrangements of familiar songs. On his recent "Live" album, he dazzled us with a solo ukulele version of Michael Jackson's megahit "Thriller," and now, on an upcoming release, he tackles one of the greatest rock songs of all time - Queen's epic "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"I like to arrange something that's recognizable to a lot of people because they don't expect to hear a song like that on the ukulele," says Jake. "On my new CD I arranged 'Bohemian Rhapsody' for ukulele. I just started playing it at shows on tour and people absolutely love it."
The vocals alone on Queen's magnum opus required 180 separate overdubs, so Jake knew he faced a formidable task.
Can the ukulele save the world? Listen to JAKE
"It was very difficult," he continues. "It's so orchestrated and has so many things going on at once, and it even has a gong at the end. But I thought it would be the perfect challenge for the ukulele. A solo ukulele arrangement is the complete opposite approach to the classic 'Bohemian Rhapsody' that we all know and love."
Recorded with a band and guest Honolulu Symphony violinist Iggy Jang, the new album should be out by September.
"It's mainly original pieces and I really tried to take advantage of multitracking with this album," he reports. "I'm doing some ballads, some progressive fusion rock stuff, some classical sounding pieces and some jazz pieces. I'm excited about the album."
* Jake Shimabukuro plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. He will be joined by Noel Okimoto on drums, Dean Taba on bass, Michael Grande on keyboards, and Honolulu Symphony Concertmaster Iggy Jang on violin. Tickets are $40, $30 and $12 plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Besides impressing with his extraordinary artistry and ability to venture into uncharted territory, Jake hopes his new music will inspire and uplift folks. Lately he's even been talking about the ukulele as an instrument of peace.
"I firmly believe that because I think the ukulele is the only instrument in the world where you can just say the name and it will make you smile," he explains. "When I travel to different places and I'm at the airport or in a restaurant with my ukulele case people always ask, what's in the case? They're expecting me to say a violin, but when I say it's a ukulele they immediately smile, and share a story about how they were in Hawaii.
"It's an instrument that promotes conversation; it encourages people to let their guard down. It's so friendly and inviting. Sometimes I think of the ukulele as the Facebook of musical instruments, because there's a community of ukulele friends. There's a whole network of ukulele players. All over the world there are ukulele orchestras and bands, and a lot of rock and pop artists are now starting to incorporate ukulele into their music. One of my favorite bands, Train, has a hit at the moment, 'Hey, Soul Sister,' and it's all ukulele from, beginning to end. When I first heard it on radio I thought it must be a local band from Hawaii. I couldn't believe my ears."
To help promote his vision of the ukulele, Jake has spearheaded the Music is Good Medicine nonprofit organization, armed with a mission of employing music as a vehicle to encourage people to serve their communities while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and positive attitude.
On the MGM Web site Jake pronounces: "This tiny, four-string instrument is a universe of joy and healing, with a childlike quality about it that returns us to our youth and energizes our mind, body and spirit. I believe that everything in our universe is connected. We are all intertwined in a web of energy. Music helps us to tap into that energy and discover things we never thought possible by allowing us to express ourselves. And, by simply expressing who we are, we project positive energy back into the universe, which ultimately makes this world a better place."
To help raise funds Jake has designed a special, affordable Takamine ukulele, with proceeds supporting his "Four Strings for Kids" program, which provides ukuleles to school kids.
"I really believe there should always be some kind of message tied into music, that it should always have a purpose," he enthuses. "For me music should always be positive and healing and make people feel good, maybe inspire people to do something like get involved in their community or figure out what their passion is in life. I really enjoy visiting schools because it gives me an opportunity to use music as a vehicle to motivate students or get them excited to find something that they love. I like to share with them a little bit about my life and how I grew up. Because of the ukulele I'm completely drug free. I've never got arrested or got into too much trouble for anything, because the ukulele was such a positive influence in my life."
Taught by his mother, Jake began strumming a ukulele at the age of 4. Discovering a natural affinity for the instrument, he would practice into the late hours, sometimes having to be gently scolded by his parents to stop playing and sleep.
After time with Pure Heart, and then the group Colon, this animated artist set off on his own creating his own, unique voice on ukulele. Soon he was being hailed as the "Jimi Hendrix" of the uke, and a YouTube video of the young virtuoso's exquisite cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," recorded in New York's Central Park, transformed him into a global phenomenon.
Routinely amazing and delighting audiences at his live shows, an All About Jazz review raved: "His melodies floated like clouds when he brought a tune down to a soft purr, or low whisper, then gradually built it back up into a blaze as palpable as it was astonishing. Upon catching fire, his right hand was a blur. Between numbers, one audience member could be heard yelling out what many were feeling at the moment, 'Jake, you're a god.' "
Attracting the attention of leading artists, in the last few years he's toured and recorded with Jimmy Buffett and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones; performed with classical legend Yo Yo Ma on his Grammy-winning CD, "Songs of Joy and Peace"; and teamed with reggae star Ziggy Marley, playing ukulele on the song "Beach in Hawaii," featured on the Grammy-winning album "Love is My Religion."
With a repertoire that seems boundless, Jake plays it all, from jazz, blues, rock and funk, to classical, bluegrass, flamenco and Japanese folk. He masterfully interprets material as varied as a Nicolo Paganini "Caprice," to Chick Corea's jazz classic "Spain," featured on his latest "Live" CD.
And he loves confounding limiting perceptions of the ukulele's abilities.
"What I like about touring is audiences always have such low expectations," he notes. "So there's that element of surprise. When you play something they're not expecting to hear, they're kind of in shock, and they're experiencing something for the very first time, and that alone brings a certain type of joy. I love it because not only am I bringing positive energy with music, the element of surprise makes people smile, and they walk away feeling good."
He brought smiles to many faces in December at a special concert in Blackpool, England, before Queen Elizabeth II. Invited to perform with entertainer Bette Midler, he played at the Royal Variety Performance, along with Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Michael Buble.
"That was absolutely fantastic, I really had a great time," he says. "It was the most nervous I've ever been meeting someone, shaking hands with royalty, and meeting the queen, and of course sharing the stage with Bette Midler. I played (the Beatles') 'In My Life' with her. It was a once in a lifetime experience."
And how was the queen?
"She looked at me and said, 'You play such a beautiful instrument.' I said, 'Oh, thank you very much,' and I kept bowing the whole time. As soon as she entered the room I started bowing."