Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro plays big music — "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" — on a small instrument. He shows that the ukulele, in the right hands, has the dynamic and expressive range to pull it off.
On Saturday, April 16, Shimabukuro partners with the largest instrument around — the Hartford Symphony Orchestra — for a performance at the Bushnell's Mortensen Hall, as part of the HSO's Pops series.
The show, Shimabukuro says, "truly showcases the ukulele in a way that I've never experienced. I've been doing a lot of shows by myself or with a trio or just a bass player. When you have a full orchestra behind you, there's so much that you can do."
In the late '90s, the Honolulu native was a member of Pure Heart, a trio with percussionist Lopaka Colón and guitarist and singer Jon Yamasato. He launched his solo career a few years later and was quickly signed to Epic Records. In short order he gained an enormous following in Japan, where he also released a number of exclusive recordings.
Stateside, Shimabukuro's collaborators have included Yo-Yo Ma, Jack Johnson, Bela Fleck, Ziggy Marley and many others. He's frequently referred to as "the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele." In 2006, Shimabukuro posted his version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" to YouTube; the performance showed his fondness for extended chord voicings and aggressive strumming patterns while never obscuring the melodic top-line. The clip has since been viewed more than 14 million times.
Last summer, Shimabukuro, 39, premiered a three-part "Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra," composed by his former teacher Byron Yasui, with the Hawai'i Symphony Orchestra. It was the first time the ukulele had been featured in a classical, non-pops setting.
"It was the most challenging piece of music I ever encountered," Shimabukuro says. "It was the first time I played atonal music. It was this completely different style and a tremendous challenge, but it was something I just love. I fell in love with the process and the commitment that it took."
In Hartford, Shimabukuro will perform the first movement of the concerto with the HSO under the direction of Carolyn Kuan. He'll also play listener-friendly originals — "143 (Kelly's Song)" and "Go for Broke," for example — and songs fans have come to expect: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and so on.
"A lot of times, we just play the concerto, and that's it," Shimabukuro says. "A lot of people who come to my shows want to hear some of the other stuff that they're used to hearing. ... [The concerto] is not for everyone. It's a challenge to listen to and an even greater challenge to play."
Yasui's concerto movement, however, will hopefully give the HSO musicians something more challenging to play.
"Pops is not real ensemble playing," Shimabukuro says. "It's more whole notes and pads." In the concerto, "everything needs to fit in the right spot. I need to be listening to the horns and woodwinds and strings, and we have to make sure we all line up. I had to learn not only my part but everybody's part, because I have to know all the cues."
For Shimabukuro, being onstage with 70 other musicians who've similarly dedicated their lives to their instruments is humbling.
"To me it's the highest honor," Shimabukuro says. "It's a risk, bringing a ukulele player onto their program. It's not a common thing to do."
JAKE SHIMABUKURO'S UKE NATION arrives at The Bushnell in Hartford on Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $19. Information: hartfordsymphony.org.