by Bob Doerschuk
Jake Shimabukuro sits in the green room at the Franklin Theatre in historic Franklin, Tennessee. Vintage guitars adorn the walls. Bassist Nolan Verner, Shimabukuro’s partner in tonight’s duo performance, hovers near the buffet. The atmosphere is subdued, conversations muted. The ringtone on the uke player’s phone fits the vibe perfectly—a single ping that sounds just once per call.
Shimabukuro smiles warmly and speaks quietly. He seems at home in this venue, located on Main Street amidst small storefronts and restaurants in the community whose vintage-looking signs welcome visitors to “the best small town in America.”
Then again, Shimabukuro probably looked as comfortable and content two nights before, in Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, a vast circular space where he and the Colorado Symphony presented Byron Yasui’s Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra. For the past 13 years, audiences in America and abroad have embraced Shimabukuro as an engaging performer, virtuoso, and evangelist for the ukulele. He has performed at rock festivals and jazz festivals, with Yo-Yo Ma and for the Queen of England.
For Shimabukuro, the world has become his home, though Hawaii remains closest to his heart. Whenever he can, he heads back to the islands to join his family. Though accustomed to playing and advocating for his instrument throughout the world, he puts his role as husband and father above all others.
How has the birth of your second son, Cole, affected your professional life?
I’m trying to keep a better balance of being on the road and being home. I still do about the same amount of shows, but in less time. For example, on this run, we’re doing 20 shows in 21 days, something like that. I’m not a singer, so I can do 20 shows in a row and not have to worry about losing my voice. And I love playing every night. Before, when I’d have a day or two with no show between, it was like, “I don’t know what to do with myself!” I’d just stay in my hotel room, practicing. Now I can do all the shows I want and have enough time to spend at home with my family.
Does mixing up solo, duo, and trio dates along with orchestral appearances keep touring fresh for you?
It helps, because you have to approach each of those situations in a different way. My wife is a doctor. She likes when she has opportunities to do different types of surgery because it helps her to keep her chops up in different areas. That’s kind of how I approach it. I like doing the solo thing but I also like when we have a rhythm section or I’m doing this duo thing with Nolan [Verner]. Recently we’ve been doing more orchestra dates, especially with the Ukulele Concerto.
You often include one or more familiar tunes on your albums, along with your own songs. On your newest release, Travels, you feature an especially sensitive solo arrangement of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” How did that come about?
That’s one of my favorite melodies. Also, I wanted to pay tribute to Iz [Israel Kamakawiwo’ole], who was one of my heroes as I was growing up. When I was arranging it, I really wanted to capture that feel that Iz had when he played that song. Another tie-in is Pat Metheny. I remember hearing him play a Norah Jones song called “Don’t Know Why” on solo guitar. He played it so beautifully. It’s very straightforward until he gets to the end, where he completely reharmonizes the melody. I have no idea what he was doing in that section [laughs], but that’s kind of what inspired this arrangement. I started off by playing the song so that people almost hear Michael Jackson singing it, and then I twist the harmony and do this chromatic line moving up. Then in the second half of the melody, the line comes back down. I don’t think I went too far with it, but it’s an ear-bender!
Pat Metheny has six strings to use in reharmonizing. How do you compensate for having just four to work with?
Well, when you have less to work with, you have to be more selective with each note. When jazz guitar players do chordal harmonies, they’re basically playing on the top three or four strings. That made me realize that you can get away with very complex ideas on just four notes because you can imply a lot.
You’ve elevated the ukulele to international consciousness. Where do you hope it will be in that sphere ten years from now?
I just hope that serious musicians will pick it up and dedicate their lives to playing in a specific genre. I want there to be a Yo-Yo Ma of the ukulele. I want there to be a Ricky Skaggs of the ukulele—or the Hendrix or the Muddy Waters. I try to play all kinds of music because I love all kinds of music, but I’ve been playing the ukulele pretty much my whole life, for 30-something years, and can you imagine the person who spends 30 years playing the ukulele, but just playing the Bach Preludes? What would they come up with? Or someone who only played bebop like Charlie Parker? I can only dabble in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but someday I hope that if I want to hear bebop ukulele, I can listen to this guy. If I want to hear serious classical ukulele, I’m going to listen to this guy. Because right now you can do that with the guitar. You can listen to [Andrés] Segovia and then you can listen to Pat Metheny. I know that day will come for us as well.