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Published: 2005/10/14
by Brian Ferdman

Dragon – Jake Shimabukuro

Hitchhike Records

I don't know about you, but in my mind, the ukulele has always been synonymous with either lazy Hawaiian music or sideshow freaks like Tiny Tim. It has typically been used as a campy instrument, and the ukulele has never quite gained the respect of its more famous cousins, the mandolin and the guitar. Well, Jake Shimabukuro has set out to change that perception by taking the ukulele out of its typical genres and moving it into the previously unexplored territories of heavy metal, salsa, jazz, flamenco, and more. With his new album, Dragon, Shimabukuro pushes the envelope, challenging the listeners to accept the ukulele in these radically differing forms of music.

Stylistically, Dragon is all over the map, but the one constant is Shimabukuro ‘s impressively clean and simplified tone. When he’s not applying excessive distortion, his sound is very smooth, and his melodic lines are often quite sparse, leaving plenty of room between the notes. The open spaces are likely attributed to both artistic choice and the limitations of the instrument. (Perhaps the ukulele’s inability to sustain notes is one reason why it never reached the widespread fame and popularity of its stringed cousins.) While Shimabukuro uses this lack of sustain to his benefit, at times, it hampers his playing, creating a bit of sameness in his solos.

Shimabukuro attempts to counteract this instrumental deficiency by setting his songs within a wide array of musical styles. Some of these broad genres miss the mark altogether, such as the 1980s power rock ballad “With U Always” and the title track, a tribute to Bruce Lee which starts out with intensity before becoming so overdramatic it reads like an emotional figure skating anthem. On the other hand, the majority of Shimabukuro’s forays are quite entertaining and impressive, such as the speedy Dawgmusic influenced flamenco of “3rd Stream” and the gentle and happily bobbing melody of “Me & Shirley T.”

Over the last several months, Shimabukuro has seen his stock rapidly rise. Several websites are hosting a stunning video of his jaw-droppingly beautiful take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and he’s shared the stage with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Jimmy Buffet, the String Cheese Incident, and others. While the Hawaiian has considerable presence in a live setting, the latter half of Dragon truly showcases his unique compositional ability. As the album progresses, the bombast and pomp of earlier tracks subside, and we see a more intimate side of Shimabukuro. Here is a man with his ukulele, telling simple and passionate stories through his instrument. The songwriting skills and deft instrumental prowess are there, and one can only hope that future Jake Shimabukuro albums will feature a producer to reign in his occasional penchant for excess and distill his work down to its simplified essence.

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