Music News & Reviews

Ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro brings a fresh perspective to instrument in Olympia show

Jake Shimabukuro
Jake Shimabukuro Courtesy

Jake Shimabukuro, playing Saturday in Olympia, is best known for his ukulele versions of such anthems as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but his latest work is less George Harrison and more Grateful Dead.

On “Nashville Sessions,” released in the fall, Shimabukuro showcases the spontaneity that’s a hallmark of his concerts. He went into a recording studio with bassist Nolan Verner (who’ll perform with him Saturday) and drummer Evan Hutchings — without a plan — and emerged six days later with a record.

“We got some great moments,” Shimabukuro said in a phone interview last week. “The energy was inspired because this was the first time we were playing it.

“Some of my favorite records are jam-band records, live records like the Flecktones or the Grateful Dead or Phish,” he added. “You can tell they’re just vibing off of each other. That’s really what we tried to go for on this record.”

“Sessions” represents what happens at his concerts, Shimabukuro said, as opposed to previous recordings on which much of the music was relaxing and soothing.

“I always got comments from people who come to the shows,” he said. “They’ve bought a CD, and they ask me, ‘Which album sounds more like the live show?’ 

“Like many jam-based recordings,” Greg Olwell wrote in a review in Ukulele Magazine, “ ‘Nashville Sessions’ has moments of grooving psychedelia, raw shredding and many dynamic changes.”

Shimabukuro, who grew up playing the uke in Honolulu, has long pushed the boundaries of what the four-stringed, two-octave instrument can express.

“You have to be a little more creative and think outside the box,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s problem-solving. ‘How am I going to create that chord?’ or ‘How am I going to play this line?’

“I’ve always believed that it doesn’t matter what instrument you play,” he added. “There’s always going to be some kind of limitation.”

Shimabukuro has played with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Ziggy Marley and Yo-Yo Ma; sold out Lincoln Center and the Hollywood Bowl; and rose to the top of Billboard’s world music chart in 2011 with “Peace Love and Ukulele.”

His rise to international popularity began with a YouTube video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Posted in 2006, the video has been viewed more than 15 million times.

While his music has evolved, Shimabukuro will play plenty of old favorites Saturday night.

“We’ll do about five songs from the ‘Nashville Sessions,’ and then we do some of my favorite tunes from before,” he said. “We do a lot of covers. We always have ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in there and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and some other Beatles tunes and some of my originals from other records.

“With a lot of the songs from previous albums, we’ll do new arrangements,” he said. “We’ll play the song, but in the middle we’ll insert an open, free jam session.”

Jake Shimabukuro

What: Young virtuoso brings speed and energy to the humble ukulele.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia.

Tickets: $35, $30 for Olympia Film Society members.