Jake Shimabukuro comes to the UK

Jake interviewed by Nick Cody

I was very fortunate to meet Jake Shimabukuro for the first time at Leeds Town Hall, on his first ever UK tour.  Prior to this meet, kindly organised by his manager Van Fletcher  I had read as many previous interviews as possible and listened to his latest album “Travels”. However none of this prepared me for such a fascinating discussion about the sheer joys of music. We were scheduled to talk for thirty minutes, but ended up chatting for almost a full hour! The interview revealed all kinds of information including how Jake set about transcribing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, his love for The Beatles and that his all-time favourite musician is actually a drummer!

jake 2

I started by showing him the latest Uke Magazine and for the next ten minutes he thumbed through every page carefully looking at each article. I pointed out the recent interview I did with Takahiro Shimo as I knew Jake would be in Tokyo in forthcoming weeks.

NC So, welcome to Leeds!

JS -Oh thank you, it’s my first time, how cool being here at the Town Hall, it’s really amazing

(I show Jake Uke Magazine)

NC -I’ve just got back from Tokyo and interviewed Takahiro Shimo about his instrument builds

JS-very nice, I’ve got to check out this guy

I’m actually going to Japan at the end of this month I am doing my tour there

NC Many I know have been banging the drum to get you here and I wanted to start by asking what made you decide to come to England and how have you found it so far?

JS Oh it’s been great .Yes I’ve always wanted to come here and do my own tour, and this has been my first opportunity. I didn’t know how it was going to go over, if anyone would know who I am here, so we just had our show in Liverpool and London and I just couldn’t believe the reception that we got, and just the enthusiasm and support from the audience, and so I was really blown away and touched, it’s been a fantastic tour so far!

NC I was talking to Phil Dolman and he was saying you came here once before and played with Bette Midler. How did that come about and how long ago was that?

JS -that was back in 2010 it was part of the Royal Variety Show

Bette and I did a duet of “In My Life.” That was a really special trip. It was in Blackpool, I was in England for basically less than 36 hours, we flew in we had the concert and I flew out the next morning-it was an extraordinary experience because I actually got to meet the Queen and have my picture taken with her, and got to shake her hand, that was just incredible.

Being here for my own tour, having my own shows has been very exciting, and I just hope we can come back here often, I hope that this is the start of an annual thing

NC-as a representative of Yorkshire we welcome you back, next time come for a little bit longer because there are lots of things to see around here

JS thank you

Yes just looking around at the architecture of the buildings, learning the history of some of the streets and roads and the areas has been truly inspiring. This tour started in Liverpool and I am a huge Beatles fan so I got to do The Beatles tour, walked around town, checked out places they played and where they hung out, and it’s been incredible

jake 3NC The new album “travels” is very diverse, when I was listening to it I thought “gosh this is a big range of stuff “, so what are you particularly pleased about on it?

J -one of the things I really like about this record is the tone of the ukulele I worked with Milan Bertosa on this record he was one of the producers. He’s the one that produced and engineered the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole  recording,who sang “Somewhere Over the rainbow”

NC That is classic

JS -Yes ,and I  have always loved the sound of that recording because the ukulele just sounds  so natural ,and the way he captured the sound of his voice, the warmth and the ambience, everything it’s just incredible, so I worked along with him and another friend of mine, Dean Taba, who is a wonderful bass player, he did all the bass playing on the recording. we wrote a couple of tunes together and we worked on some of the arrangements together, and it was just a great experience, because like you said ,it is a very diverse record, and I feel that “Travels” is a  good title for it because it’s really in the last 3 or 4 years all the travelling I have been doing ,going to so many different countries and different places, I’ve just been so inspired by hearing different  kinds of music and experiencing new things, I feel like I was able to express a lot of that in this record.

Then there is also the idea of not just the evolution but the growth for me as a musician ,from the time when I was a kid to now ,and I wanted the album to represent that ,which is why I had  a few very traditional Hawaiian songs, and then I had other things , where I expanded on not just the acoustic sound of the ukulele, but also the electric, so that is why you hear some distortion ukulele on there, and different kinds of techniques, different ways of playing, and it’s also  really a tribute to some of my heroes,  people like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Walter San, Peter Moon, Eddie Kamae , Gabby Panaueu, all of these amazing ukulele players I grew up listening to


NC knowing what you know now, if you could go back to the “Pure Heart” days, if you could go back in time for a day, what advice would you give to the younger Jake?

JC I don’t know for me that was- it’s funny you should bring that up as we just had  a reunion concert last year, and it was the first time we played together in 14 years. It was like we just played the week before. It’s so funny because you just really pick up where you left off – you know we grew up playing together and we influenced each other so much that when we picked up our instruments and got together we were like, we don’t know what’s going to happen -but we had a rehearsal at my house and they came over ,and we probably talked for about 2 hours just catching up, as now we are all married and we all have children, we are all dads, and it was just funny getting together, but we picked up our instruments and it was like- “let’s play something” and it was just like that! Everything came back, and it was great, it was just as much fun playing together as it was when we were first starting out- so I don’t know what my advice for me would be, I guess it’s all about having fun and learning from the experience. It was neat, because of course we have all grown as musicians, but it was fun to play those same arrangements, and I went back and listened to all my old solos and re learnt them for the concert.

NC Do you think you might record again together?

JS I don’t know, we still have the 3 recorded albums together

We have 2 full albums and the Christmas recording. When I listen to those records you can tell we were young, just having fun, and I think to try to capture that again, we are different people now and it just wouldn’t be the same. I don’t know if it would be better or worse who knows, for us it was really about having a good time and reminiscing and music does that so it was great

NC Two of the tracks which obviously got your awareness were the Queen track “Bohemian Rhapsody” and also “While my guitar gently weeps” How did you go about working those out on the ukulele, what was your thinking and why those particular songs?

JS Well they are classic tunes, they have been some of my favourites since I was a kid and I have always felt a connection with George Harrison because of his love for the ukulele, and I love all of his music, I love the Beatles and I love George Harrison, and of course Bohemian Rhapsody has in my mind always been one of the greatest classic rock tunes of all time. When that album came out no one had ever heard anything like that before ,it was so mind blowing, and I realised they had never performed that song before live in its entirety ,whenever they performed it they would do the first part of the song, but by the time it got to the rock opera part, it was a light show ,the tracks would go on and it was a light show, so I remember hearing other covers of it, different symphonies playing it, some piano arrangements of it, and some classical guitar arrangements of it ,and I always wondered what it would sound like on the ukulele. I remember working on it, I was actually on tour in Japan, and I was in my hotel room one night, and you know how they have those little note pads by the desk. So that was all that I had, just those note pads and a pen, and I took them out and I remember staying up all night, and listening to it over and over, and jotting down chords, trying to figure out what the best key for it would be on the ukulele, and yeah, it was just I had a stack of notes like this, and there was no way anyone else could have made sense of it, they were all over the place, I mean it was just a big mess- but I wish I had kept those pieces of paper, because it was a real visual of how my mind works when I am working out pieces like these. I wish I had kept it. It would be really funny to show people this is how I constructed “Bohemian Rhapsody”

NC How long did it take you to actually do that?

JS I worked on it section by section

The first part that I worked on was “thunderbolts and lightening very very frightening”, because to me that is the most complicated part of the song, there is just so much going on, I remembered when I listened to it, to other arrangements of it, even the symphonic arrangements of it, guitar arrangements piano arrangements, I just felt like there was something still missing in that part, so I remember telling myself if I can’t figure out a way to play that line “thunderbolts and lightening very very frightening”   right, if I couldn’t figure out that line, if I couldn’t find a good voicing of that line which felt complete to me, felt like the tune to me, I wasn’t going to move forward, so I remember I spent a lot of time just on that part, but once I got the voicing that I was happy with then I thought “OK great,” and I moved on.

Then I went back to the very beginning and then I worked out “is this the real life” from there, and then I just worked it out from beginning to end, it took me about just under a week before I had arranged the entire song, but I still couldn’t play it, I just had the arrangement ,I had the vision of what I wanted, and I knew what it wanted to sound like, I had my notation and all that ,and then it took me about a good month before I could really start to get it under my fingers, and the first time I performed it was at that Ted conference in California

NC Really!

JS Yeah, and every time I see that video I remember how nervous I was, because that is the worst place to try out a new song(laughs)

NC Exactly it’s not like with a few friends in the local café!

JS I knew I had to do something different for the Ted talk, and it was good to prove to myself it could be done, but the arrangement has evolved tremendously since that Ted talk, and even from the time when I recorded it, maybe a few months after the Ted talk, yeah it has just evolved a lot since then. I found there were some harmonies in there which were wrong on the recording after going back and double checking and tripling checking things, so yeah, so one day I would like to go back into the recording studio and re-record it the way I have it now, as I am a lot happier with the new arrangement now

NC well I don’t think anyone is going to be asking for a refund!

JS (laughs) Yes, but you know it’s funny, it’s just the most subtle thing-even on the “easy come easy go” section I was treating the melody as the root of the harmony, but it’s really not ,it’s actually the 5th in the harmony, so yeah, little things like that, reconstructing it-ill play it tonight though for sure


NC So with “While my guitar gently weeps” – was it the George Harrison influence that got you thinking about recording that particular track?

JS Yes I love a lot of George Harrison tunes. I used to cover “Something” I used to cover “Here comes the sun” , and “Something” and “While my guitar gently weeps”- really work well on the ukulele ,and I always wondered because he had such a fascination with the instrument. I don’t know exactly when it started, at what age, and I don’t know when he actually wrote those songs, or got the ideas for those 3 tunes, but the natural progression of those songs, the way that the chords move, it seems just seems such an obvious and natural movement on the ukulele.

With “Something” if you play that in the key of C it just works SO well, it’s just such a natural way to play, and the voicings, especially with the high 4th string, it’s just perfect, you know, it’s very complete. It’s the same thing with “Here comes the sun”. If you play that in the key of G, the melody sits very nicely there, or even if you are just strumming it and singing it, the chord sounds, the voicings sound very complete, in its very basic shape.  With “While my guitar gently weeps”, if you play it in C minor because you are moving from the minor to the parallel major ,you have that 3rd string ,that open drone, you know that low C that can carry over from the A section to the B section, so that again works out so nicely, because the melody works so perfectly on the first string, while you drone on the 3rd, and then even when you go to the major, the melody again just works perfectly, and it’s just in the right range for the ukulele.

NC Who would you like to play with and haven’t yet worked with?

JS Oh gosh there are so many

NC who would be in your top 3?

JS They have to be alive right?

NC it would be easier!

JS George Harrison of course and I would have really loved to have met Andreas Segovia and play with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan would be someone, I would just die to meet him!

Pat Metheny is amazing in fact that’s one of the other reasons I titled this album “Travels” because that’s one of my favourite Pat Metheny records.

Eddie Kamae, he was one of the first ukulele virtuosos in Hawaii, and I actually got to jam with him a few times. You mentioned Jeff Beck earlier, he is incredible

There are also a lot of musicians who aren’t really labelled artists but they are incredible musicians. For me, hands down, if I could just play with any musicians my ultimate first choice would be Buddy Rich. He would be my ultimate, I would just love to have a session with him. I think it would have been so inspiring and so fulfilling just to sit down and play a few bars with him.

Yeah he is always one of my favourites. I never get tired of listening to him play, watching his videos on You Tube, his feel, he was a natural, and he was just born to play that instrument, just a virtuoso

NC We were in the Vanguard in New York and heard just before he died Paul Motian play with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano and he was just magical

JS Oh he was a very unique drummer, and Bill Frisell, I just love his playing, he is so quirky sometimes, and he is just so creative and so inventive, the way he phrases his melodies, its just so awkward sometimes, but it just WORKS- he is so good ,yeah I love musicians like that.

NC In one interview he said sometimes he would just jump to somewhere on the guitar fretboard just to see what happens- I am just thinking “what!”

JS Well when you have got gears like Bill Frisell, well there is just nothing you can’t do. He plays with such conviction and he is so free when he plays, it’s just beautiful.

Also I love musicians like Carlos Santana, I love the presence that the notes that he plays have, they carry this magical presence that everything just really hits you deep, and that’s something that I really appreciate in players, and it’s hard to find musicians that have all of that, that can play, that can put so much into one note, but at the same time they are real technicians, and they can also have the feel. Certain musicians excel in this area or that, and have this and not that, you know the grass is always greener, which is why it is hard for me to name just one musician that has everything, but Buddy Rich was one of those guys, Buddy Rich was this incredible virtuoso, I don’t think there was anything he could not do, and I don’t think there is anyone else on the planet who could really do what he could -man -I don’t know ,he just moves me when I listen to him play.

NC So what’s next after the UK tour-where are you headed?

JS Japan – we are going to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and I think 3 more cities I can’t think of the other 3 right now!

NC It’s been great chatting to you, it’s a real pleasure to talk to someone who has so many skills and real interest in musical expression

JS Well I love it, I am just grateful that I can do this all the time, it is really something I am just happy to finally be out here in the UK ,doing some shows, it’s been great

NC Thank you so much we are really looking forward to hear you playing

JS you’re coming to the concert right

NC Definitely!

Photographs by Susan Elton

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