“This is the underdog of all instruments,” said Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro as he opened his 2010 TED talk.
“I’ve always believed that it’s the instrument of peace because if everyone played the ukulele this world would be a much happier place.”
Then Shimabukuro, who can get sounds out of a ukulele that no one else can, covered Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with all the ferocity and tenderness that has made him a towering presence.
Shimabukuro has collaborated with legends from Bette Midler to Yo-Yo Ma, from Cyndi Lauper to Bela Fleck. And he’s been compared to guitar wizard Jimi Hendrix for his incendiary riffs.
Yet it was a gentler song that gave Shimabukuro his big break.
A fifth-generation Japanese-Hawaiian, the ukulele player didn’t even know what YouTube was when someone posted a video of him covering the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It now stands at more than 15 million views.
The song was perfect for showcasing his virtuosity and opened the door to global touring for Shimabukuro, who’d mostly played in Hawaii and Japan (where his agent is from).
Married to a Hawaiian physician with two young children, he plays about 140 gigs a year worldwide, and just about everyone who attends one of his shows is amazed at what they hear.
“When I’m on stage all I’m trying to do is just connect with people, and I want to be as sensitive as possible so that I can feel what they’re feeling,” he said in “Life on Four Strings” a 2012 documentary. “Music communicates the purest form of emotion.”
A relentless innovator, Shimabukuro’s most recent album, “Nashville Sessions,” was unrehearsed. He went into the studio with a longtime collaborator, the bassist Nathan Verner, and a drummer he’d never met, Evan Hutchings.
The new album, released last September, was “very spontaneous. The nice thing about this record was we didn’t have a deadline or really any plan, so there was no pressure,” Shimabukuro said in a phone interview in late January.
“We just wanted to approach it like a jam session. I wrote some basic melodies and we just would figure out a form and then play. In the middle we would improvise and just let whatever happened happen.”
He said he’s “really happy with what we came up with, because the ideas were so fresh and so new you can feel the inspiration behind it.”
Playing with an untested drummer was a leap of faith, but he said it worked out well.
“When you’re playing music with people it’s not just about your skill level, it’s the personality, too. You have to be able to read each other; you have to be able to respect each other, and you have to trust each other,” he said.
“I can venture out and know that the drummer and bassist are going to be right with me. And they have that kind of trust where they can feel something and just go for it and just know that I’m going to dig that and go with them,” he added.
“Usually that kind of thing takes years and years of playing together all the time.”