CD Review: Jake Shimabukuro, Dragon

Although still best known in Japan and his native Hawaii, Jake Shimabukuro has become the pre-eminent worldwide ambassador for the ukelele, an instrument with more depth and soul than most of us know. If your image of the ukelele is Hawaiian kitch or Tiny Tim (a serious musician, but one who never overcame his popular image as a novelty act), any of Jake’s CDs will come as an edifying surprise.

His 2004 release, Walking Down Rainhill, showcased an impressive variety of technicial and compositional styles, from the sunny pop of “Rainbow,” which was used as Hawaii Tourism Japan’s theme song, to the gentle jazz-waltz lullaby “6 in the Morning,” to the hyperkinetic bop-rock of “Wes on Four.” Jake’s solo rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a loving and lovely tribute to George Harrison, one of his idols.

Walking Down Rainhill did require from the listener a degree of tolerance for the generic, “international” instrumental pop style for which artists like Yanni are both loved and despised. Fortunately, Jake’s music shows no signs of becoming full of itself; a little too much the opposite, in fact: on his new CD, Dragon, to be released next month, he seems to be taking it just a bit too easy. The album hangs together well, but there’s less variety and experimentation, resulting in a batch of songs that go down smoothly but – with some exceptions – don’t engage the listener as acutely as Shimabukuro does at his best.

In one sense, it’s a triumph for Jake and his ukelele that they can take us on a relaxing musical journey while making us almost forget that the maestro is playing an instrument with only two octaves and four humble strings. But a little more spice and a little less sweetness would have made for a more exciting dish. The CD opens strongly with the wah-wah-driven, Latin-fusion kicker “Shake It Up!” Jake’s exquisite tone and musicality can’t, however, make “With U Always,” “Me & Shirley T.” or “Circle of Friends” more than blandly enjoyable. The title track features Jake’s passionate soloing and almost unbelievable arpeggio technique, but is overloaded with orchestration.

“Floaters” is an exquisite solo piece that’s much more transcendent, and “3rd Stream” is an impressive, fusiony fast-fingers display with a jaw-dropping uke solo. Together the two tracks comprise the heart of the CD, distilling the best of Shimabukuro’s two sides: his lyrical sense, and his ability to compose a solid band number that shows off both his amazing playing and his compositional skill.

Some of the other tracks are either too heavy on the sap, like “Touch,” or just not very interesting, like “Toastmanland” and “Making a Perfect Yesterday.” Fortunately, listening to the liquid-crystal sound of Jake’s ukelele is a pure pleasure in itself, particularly where he keeps the orchestration less obtrusive, as in the sweet ballad “Looking Back.”

Jake Shimabukuro certainly isn’t looking back: He’s been touring with numerous top artists, including Bela Fleck, and more recently Jimmy Buffett. On the strength of all that exposure, Jake Shimabukuro and his uke should be getting wider recognition in the US, which, although the new CD is somewhat uneven, he deserves.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]