Jake Shimabukuro is to the ukulele what Béla Fleck is to the banjo, Yo-Yo Ma is to the cello and Trombone Shorty is to, well, the trombone. He’s an ambassador to an instrument that never experienced a mainstream following—Tiny Tim doesn’t count.
The Hawaii native’s 20-plus albums have showcased interpretations of traditional Japanese exoduses into psychedelic realms, a dazzling arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain” and original compositions inspired by the Nashville Sound.
Each of the uke phenom’s records is sans boundaries and different from the previous release. But the award-winning musician’s upcoming Jake & Friends marks his most ambitious: 16 tracks featuring collaborations with 18 of the world’s most celebrated musical talents.
“When my manager suggested the idea, I remember thinking, ‘This is never going to happen,’” Shimabukuro admits.
Jake & Friends took over a year to complete, but it’s in the can and loaded with music royalty—Jack Johnson, Kenny Loggins, Lukas Nelson, Warren Haynes, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Strings, Moon Taxi, Michael McDonald, Sonny Landreth, Bette Midler and several others. It hits the streets Nov. 16.
Notables who Shimabukuro had worked with—like Jack Johnson, Jimmy Buffett and Ray Benson, the deep-voiced founder of longtime Texas swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel—reached out to friends who jumped at the opportunity to team up with the uke master.
“The first phone call Ray [Benson] made was to Willie Nelson,” Shimabukuro says. “I was so nervous being in the studio with him.”
It didn’t help that Shimabukuro had been told that he’d only have two takes with Nelson.
“We had only met the night before we went into the studio,” Shimabukuro recalls. “[‘Stardust’] is one of the most iconic songs he plays. When I walked into the studio, [Nelson] was reviewing the lyrics, and he just looked up and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I felt like I wasn’t there; it was surreal. I kept my headphones off of one ear because I wanted to hear his voice in real-time.”
The Youngbloods’ ’60s peace and love anthem “Get Together” couldn’t be a better bookend. Shimabukuro’s ukulele interpretation paired with Jesse Colin Young’s voice makes the listening experience almost more meaningful and dynamic than the original. Young’s voice is aged and out-of-shape, but it works; the authenticity is primeval. That renowned refrain—Come on people now, smile on your brother/Everybody get together, try to love one another right now—resonates as an impassioned call-to-action just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Jake Shimabukuro will play on Friday, Sept. 24, at Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 8pm; $40/$60. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (taken within 72 hours) required for entry. riotheatre.com.