Even for ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro, it’s more about the music than the instrument.
Shimabukuro probably becomes the first ever to solo on ukulele at the venerable Troy Savings Bank Music Hall when he plays there on Saturday.
This gig in the perfect-sounding room where the names of Bach, Beethoven and other dead-white-guy musical demigods decorate the ceiling, marks the latest step in an unlikely odyssey that began at Shimabukuro’s mother’s knee in Honolulu at 4 years old.
The ukulele has taken him around the world despite its compact dimensions and technical limitations. An instrument once often hand-made of cast-off cigar boxes — fans still bring Shimabukuro cigar boxes to autograph — became a sensation in his hands, in part thanks to YouTube, where his solo version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” defined viral in the free-access music video world.
It’s a long odyssey to the Hall for the ukulele itself, an instrument that gets less respect than the banjo. The ukulele (say “oo-koo-lay-lay,” not “yoo-koo-lay-lay”) is the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments, in a lei — despite Eddie Vedder’s recent efforts and Harrison’s well known affection for the uke.
Shimabukuro’s mother ignited that same affection in young Jake with laid-back “lessons” rather than organized training.
“It was more like, ‘Put this finger here and that finger there and I’ll strum,’ ” he said Monday from Charlottesville, Va., “That’s how I learned my first chord, not in an organized way. It was more playing by ear and that made it enjoyable.”
After playing traditional Hawaiian music for 10 years, the desire to be cool expanded his ambition. “As I grew older, I discovered different styles and wanted to play tunes my friends would recognize,” he said.
“The only instrument I had was ukulele, so if I heard a guitar tune or something on piano, I had to figure out how to play it on ukulele and it was all about finding the melody.” This made his friends the first listeners, of multitudes since, to say, “Wow, I didn’t know you could play that on the ukulele!”
Now listeners say that about Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his last album “Peace Love Ukulele,” or Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” or “Over the Rainbow,” both on his new “Grand Ukulele” album.
Expanding his repertoire, Shimabukuro soon branched out from studying his instrument to see how it fit in the wider world of music. In addition to studying with ukulele players, “I also studied with piano players and guitar players just to get an understanding of music,” he said. “I realized, it wasn’t just about learning to play the ukulele, it was about learning to be a musician.”
He learned from anyone — visual artists, musicians of all sorts, even athletes — “anybody who makes an art from out of what they do.”
Shimabukuro acknowledged the challenge of making music of big ambitions on an instrument of small capabilities, making it an art form. “People would ask me, ‘Isn’t it frustrating to have just four strings and two octaves? Doesn’t it make you discouraged?’ ”
But he said, “I actually embrace those limitations, and it pushes me and drives me to be more creative. If you don’t have too many notes, you have to figure out how to use them to make it interesting, like tone color and dynamics, because you can only play four notes at a time versus 10 on the piano. So every note needs to be of importance.”
He sees the strengths of the ukulele in emotional terms. “The ukulele is a very friendly instrument,” he said. “It’s not intimidating, and as soon as you hear a ukulele, it makes people smile. People light up or chuckle or laugh. I believe if everybody played the ukulele, the world would be a better place, with happier people.”
Almost all Hawaiians do play: They learn in fourth or fifth grade. But Shimabukuro may be the happiest musician we’ll see on stage anywhere this season, and inarguably one of the most skillful. Yet he dismissed any concern that listeners may not appreciate his skills because he makes it all look so easy. “That’s not important to me at all,” he insisted. “The most important thing is for people to enjoy the music and feel connected to the music.”
His amazing technical facility — his famous speed, clarity and ingenuity — may be more important to some fans than to him as he plays to create enjoyment rather than to dazzle. “Sometimes I see people sitting up close to watch what I’m doing with my fingers and they may say, ‘Gosh, he’s spanning eight frets!’ Or, ‘Look how he added that flatted fifth with that voicing.’ ” But, he said, “I just want people to enjoy it.”
Shimabukuro enjoyed painting on a wider musical canvas on his new album “Grand Ukulele,” produced in Nashville by Alan Parsons (the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and other classics) with expansive orchestral arrangements or cozy rhythm sections.
Parsons had seen Shimabukuro play solo, “and he loved the sound of the solo ukulele,” said Shimabukuro. “He asked me to take all the songs we wanted to record and do solo arrangements, just like I’d play them live, so I could pull it off in a live show.” Then Parsons would suggest that some songs stay solos while others grew grand orchestral wings or became jazzy small-ensemble pieces.
At the hall on Saturday, Shimabukuro will play solo, as the new songs were all conceived. “It works great,” he said. “The songs are strong enough that they work. People say they love the album and when they listen to me playing the songs solo, they don’t miss the other stuff. I think that’s good,” he said. “Orchestrally, the album works, and solo the show works.
“I’d like people to forget that it’s a ukulele playing, and just enjoy the music.”
Jack Shimabukuro plays solo ukulele at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 and $24, $15 for students. Phone 273-0038 or visit www.troymusichall.org.
Also on Saturday, folk duo and life partners Mike + Ruthy play the 1848 Shaker Meeting House (25 Meeting House Road, Albany). And among their arsenal of instruments is the ukulele, along with fiddle, banjo and guitar, and of course their solo or harmonized voices.
Mike + Ruthy perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is $20, free for those 18 and younger. Phone 456-7890 or visit www.shakerheritage.org.
Soulful folk-pop singer Richie Havens died on Monday, leaving memories of a star-making Woodstock set and countless later shows here, from the RPI Fieldhouse with a sprawling band to the first-ever Alive at Five show on Albany’s blocked-off Broadway to Eighth Step and Van Dyck shows that felt like returns to his Greenwich Village coffeehouse roots.
Havens’ career exploded after Woodstock when he filled in for stranded musicians (or, in Albanian Bert Sommer’s case, stage-frightened ones), a lucky break akin to David Bromberg’s sunset show at the Isle of Wight. Havens parlayed the challenge of playing guitar with his huge hands into a finger-capo effect innovative in his time, strumming chords as if playing a drum.
He used his narrow, deep voice to claim even the most unlikely songs as his own — bending, stretching, slowing down or speeding up. He was one of a kind and, in those several memorable times we spoke, a sweet, wise and funny man. He was also the last man standing who could still say “Groovy!” and get away with it.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]