By Harley Pummill | Photography by Jessie Shepard
The e-mail was waiting in my Inbox first thing in the morning. Mark Carter had sent it late the night before making me wonder for the umpteenth time in the 12 years that I’ve known him, “When does this guy sleep?” The message was simple.
“Have you heard of this guy before? Check him out and tell me what you think.”
Below the message was a link to YouTube. Mark and I talk a lot about up-and-coming jazz artists as we get closer to the festival. So it’s not unusual for him to come up with a couple of late possible additions to the lineup. I clicked on the link and waited to see what I was sure would be another guitar or sax or keyboard player.
About four minutes later I was sitting in front of my computer monitor, speechless. Which is pretty much the reaction that most people have when they first experience the playing of Jake Shimabukuro.
First off, forget sax, trumpet, guitar or any other mainstream instrument. Jake plays ukulele…like a god! Yes, I said ukulele…the little four-stringed, mini-guitar that weird Uncle Everette produces at every family gathering to play “Shine On, Harvest Moon.“
Only Jake wasn’t playing “Shine On, Harvest Moon“…he was playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And he was playing it on Conan O’Brien!
My response to Mark was succinct and to the point: “We GOTTA get this guy!!”
Jake Shimabukuro is a fifth generation Japanese-American born and raised in Hawaii. His mother introduced him to the ukulele at the ripe old age of four. He said he immediately felt a passion for the instrument…and his passion is translated into his playing, especially when he’s playing live.
He started off playing traditional Hawaiian fare. “So, when did it occur to you to start playing rock anthems like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the ukelele,” I asked him. He explained, “I’m pretty much self-taught. I learned by ear rather than any formal lessons. So I just started plunking away, translating the guitar chords and fingering to the uke. It just came together.”
But Conan O’Brien? Where’d that gig come from? “My manager had me booked to play this gig in the parking lot of a surf shop,” Jake explained. “As luck would have it, Mac McAnally, who is a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, was there and saw me. He tells Jimmy who invites me to come to one of his shows. Then brings me out onstage to play with him on ‘A Pirate Looks at 40’. I guess you’d have to call that ‘the break.’”
Jake was my little secret at the jazz festival. I teased the audience all weekend long, telling them that I had “an act that is going to blow your mind.” When I brought him onstage, I stood and watched the audience’s reaction. Jake is a small fella, can’t weigh more than 130 soaking wet. But every fiber of that 130-pound being was poured into his playing. The intensity, the precision, the emotion made for a… yes, I’ll say it… a virtuoso performance. I walked backstage and saw jazz superstar Dave Koz standing, no, riveted to a spot, completely focused on Jake’s performance. Dave’s manager wanted to go over something with him. But Dave put him off saying, “I’ve been wanting to hear this guy.”
That’s the essence of a live performance by Jake Shimabukuro. Time stands still. You realize that you’re experiencing something truly unique. Jake doesn’t just play for the audience… he puts his entire being into every note. And the audience doesn’t just listen to Jake… they absorb him. It was a magical experience.
Afterward Jake came back to my condo unit and we talked for a while. Another amazing thing about him is that in the maelstrom that his life has become, between tapings of Conan and jazz festivals and performing with Jimmy Buffett in front of 50,000 people, he remains remarkably grounded. Unfailingly polite. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that he’s still at that wonderful (and all too short-lived) stage of his career where he still marvels at his success. Like he’s caught in a wonderful dream that just keeps getting better. And he’s doing it with a ukulele!
Now, where’d I put that accordion?