“I’ve always been lucky because I’ve had support from the people of Hawaii,” said ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro.
He’s had broader support than that, of course, having ascended the Billboard charts while garnering millions on YouTube views. On his new album, “Jake & Friends,” Shimabukuro collaborates with a virtual musical hall of fame. That local support matters, though, because the artist has built his work on new sounds, incorporating effects pedals, rock influences, and jazz ideas, just to name a few unique elements of his work.
“I started out playing more in the traditional sense,” he said. “I think that was good and it’s so important to respect and honor the roots of the instrument and just the traditions. Even though I veer from tradition, I always make it a point … to always honor my teachers and the people who inspired me.”
Shimabukuro began playing ukulele at a young age, and he began “getting more experimental musically” in high school.
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“A lot of that came from listening to electric guitar players, with effect pedals and things like that,” he explained. “Altering the sound of the ukulele — it made me play different, it made me feel different.”
As he began to play with different bands, he thought about how to be heard over louder instruments. He also took inspiration from his musical heroes — thinking of Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, in particular — “moved outside the tradition” of their respective instruments.
While Shimabukuro has explored his various interests, he’s discovered that “just being in the studio is inspiring.” He’s found that playing with sound and tone can help him play in new ways and find creative approaches to his recordings, “coming up with ideas that I wouldn’t have had” otherwise. He’s also discovered a joy in the engineering process.
“One of my favorite things about being in the studio is the mixing,” he said. “I could do that for weeks and weeks. I love sitting there with the engineer. I love listening and making decisions. Of course, there’s so much that the studio engineer does that’s beyond my understanding and my own ears. When it comes to just the tone of the ukulele and the presence of the ukulele, I love being involved in that.”
Shimabukuro’s career blossomed, and a few years ago his manager, Van Fletcher, began talking to him about doing a collaborative record. As Fletcher suggested some names, Shimabukuro got excited, thinking it could be “a dream record.”
“But in the back of my head,” he laughed, “I was like, ‘This ain’t never going to happen!’”
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, a good friend, encouraged the project and agreed to co-produce it with Shimabukuro.
“The first phone call he made was to Willie Nelson,” he continued. “Two months later, we’re in the studio with Willie Nelson recording ‘Stardust.” Once that was laid down, it gave the project momentum, it gave it credibility.”
That momentum led to a string of remarkable collaborations for “Jake & Friends.” Shimabukuro let his guests pick the pieces they wanted to play and he would learn them. Except for three exceptions, they would get together and record the cuts live in the studio.
“It felt so casual and laid back,” he said. “And that’s the vibe of the record: real intimate.”
With every pairing, Shimabukuro took away something new, constantly learning and still sounding excited about his experiences. He was quick to mention the joy of working with Kenny Loggins.
“I got to see his process as he produces and arranges,” he said. “I didn’t realize this about him: all the other parts that you hear — he hears all the lines in his head. So when we brought the bass player in, he was singing a very specific line. If he played one thing that was not in the same rhythm Kenny sang, he would stop him. It was amazing to see how he just had a clear picture in his head of what the end result was going to be.”
Billy Strings wanted to “figure it out in the studio,” which made Shimabukuro a little nervous. The two connected quickly, though, and the resulting piece, “Smokin’ Strings,” “is really just the two of us jamming.” They tried later takes with charts and a plan, but discovered that the spontaneity of the first take made it “magical.”
“There’s no pressure; we’re just being spontaneous, and we’re both going for it,” Shimabukuro explained.
While working with Sonny Landreth, Shimabukuro “would just be shaking my head.”
“There’s a thing that he does where he’s palming the strings and hitting the guitar with his finger,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s doing, but we’re recording and I’m trying to look over at his hands. How is he making that sound?”
“On the Road to Freedom” with Warren Haynes took on extra length because the two artists turned it loose and Shimabukuro didn’t want to cut any of his partner’s playing “because it’s so good” and each part was needed.
Each artist — from “one-take wonder” Lukas Nelson with his perfect playing and singing to Vince Gill with his energy and niceness — provided a learning opportunity for the ukulelist.
“Every time coming out of the studio, I felt like it made me a better musician,” Shimabukuro said. “I walked away getting so much out of that experience. I definitely want to do more collaborative projects. I want to collaborate with musicians of different genres, especially things that are out of my comfort zone.”
One appearance, though, had a broader familial impact.
“Bette Midler is my mom’s favorite singer,” Shimabukuro recounted. “When I was a kid, my mom used to sing ‘The Rose’ to me all the time. When Bette did ‘The Rose,’ I was almost crying in the studio. I didn’t tell my mom what we were doing, and I remember bringing home the demo and I said, ‘Hey, Mom, listen to this.’ As soon as Bette started singing, my mom’s like, “Who’s that singing? No way!’”
No matter where you go, after all, it’s important to honor your roots.