Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro returns to Belly Up (video)
If You Go ….
Who: Jake Shimabukuro
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, March 15, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $30-$55
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
On that simple instrument, with its small body and four strings, the 39-year-old Hawaiian can channel the sounds of full bands and has found a seemingly limitless range.
That astounding online video of him, in the Stawberry Fields section of Manhattan’s Central Park, playing the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has 14.5 million views to date. Posted without his knowledge in 2006, it quickly earned him a record contract and sent him on world tours, with musicians ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Jimmy Buffet knocking on his door for collaborations. It drew comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. In the years since, six of his albums have topped the world music charts.
Shimabukuro, who plays Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday, adds to his repertoire of covers constantly. When a pop song breaks out – from Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” – he’ll often try his hand at making it work on the ukulele. His latest studio album – last year’s “Travels” – included mind-blowingly complex four-string arrangements of War’s “Low Rider” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
Shimabukuro doesn’t have a formula for picking covers, he said, but he’s an omnivorous listener. On a recent night at home, for example, he stumbled on a TV talent show contestant’s performance of “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls” which led him to Jennifer Hudson’s version, then to Jennifer Holiday’s original, which led him down a Broadway show tunes rabbit hole and eventually to several songs from “Jekyll and Hyde.”
“That’s kind of how it is for me,” he said from Nashville, where he’s mixing a new studio album that’s due out late this year. “I love all kinds of music and anything with a lot of heart and soul in it.”
When he chooses covers, he said, it’s often just because he likes a melody or thinks a song sounds fun. But he also likes to take on a seemingly impossible challenge. Queen’s progressive epic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for instance, didn’t sound like something that even Shimabukuro could pull off.
“I wasn’t sure it would be possible to really capture the spirit of the song on four strings,” he said. “Really, you can cover anything and make it recognizable. But for me, when I cover a song, I don’t want to just make it recognizable.”
His arrangements in the covers and in his original compositions transcend the novelty his instrument – listening to him, you forget how unsophisticated most ukulele music sounds. But the limitations of the ukulele, he argues, aren’t unique.
“I think every instrument has its limitations,” he said. “A trumpet or a woodwind instrument – you can only play one note at a time. On the ukulele, you can play four notes at one. Or something like a piano – you can’t bend notes on a piano. You can’t carry your piano with you everywhere.”
Since his last stop in Aspen – a gem of a Belly Up show in the fall off-season of 2013 – Shimabukuro has added a bass player to his concerts. After years of taking the stage alone with his uke, a stool and a microphone, bringing in a bass opened up some new possibilities.
”Having a bassist changes up the performance,” he said. “Having someone to interact with and adding some bottom end to what I’m doing. For me it’s very exciting and it completes the instrument, because the ukulele is so on the upper register, it’s nice to have something in the lower register to make it all make sense. … Its sounds very complete.”
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