Review: It’s the Ukulele for Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro/Jake & Friends/Mascot Music
Three Out of Five Stars 

There are times throughout Jake Shimabukuro’s star-studded new album, Jake & Friends, where he literally sounds like he’s guesting on his own effort. That’s not surprising of course; when you populate your record with an array of A-list superstars—among them, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, Moon Taxi, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Jon Anderson, Ziggy Marley, Warren Haynes, Jack Johnson, and Billy Strings— it’s only natural that the luster emitted by those luminaries would tend to take center stage. So too, as is the case with any of Shimabukuro’s releases, it’s the songs that compete for attention. After all, Shimabukuro attracted his initial notoriety covering classics on his ukulele, turning his rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” into an internet sensation.

It’s not surprising then that he’s chosen to follow that formula over the course of every album. To prove that point, he covers three Beatles songs here—“All You Need Is Love,” “A Day on the Life,” and “Something.” After all, who can blame him; for all his skill and proficiency, it’s hard to avoid the notion that Shimabukuro is a niche and novelty and will remain so until his instrument makes some significant inroads into the musical mainstream.

 


Still, one has to admire Shimabukuro’s due diligence and determination to reshape these songs, often in the company of the original artists. Hearing Jimmy Buffett revisiting his first hit “Come Monday,” Bette Midler singing “The Rose,” Willie Nelson reprising “Stardust,” and Jesse Colin Young sharing “Get Together” not only induces a sense of abject nostalgia but also provides the pathway for a welcome return. 

Notably then, in those situations that find Shimabukuro providing the singers’ sole accompaniment, he takes the opportunity to reclaim the spotlight for himself.

Make no mistake—these aren’t rote cover versions. “A Day in the Life” captures the cascading flourish of the original, even as Shimabukuro’s stunningly strummed ukulele takes it into another dimension entirely. Michael McDonald’s vocal on “Go Now” adds a surprisingly softer hue to this early Moody Blues classic. The Cream classic “Wrapping Paper” is wholly unrecognizable as rendered under the auspices of guests Asleep at the Wheel.

Regardless of how one views this particular covers collection, it’s hard not to admire Shimabukuro’s pulling power and the names that occupy his circle of faithful friends. 

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