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Gregg Porter's Music Reviews

September 2004


Jake Shimabukuro: “Walking Down Rainhill”


Hawai`i’s young `ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro is, as they say, “big in Japan.” So big that he is the official spokesman to Japan for the Hawaiian tourism campaign, “ Six Islands, Six Surprises.” TV commercials … posters … tours …and each of his albums comes out in Japan even before appearing on the shelves of record stores in his home state.

His latest, “Walking Down Rainhill,” does not deviate from that path, nor do its contents stray from the sound he has developed over two previous releases (“Sunday Morning” and “Crosscurrents.”) Make no mistake, as wonderful as his music is, his are not “Hawaiian music” albums. Instead, they are successful at elevating the humble, anyone-can-learn-to-play-it uke to respectable positions alongside guitars and other string instruments. A good example of another musician doing this is banjo player Béla Fleck, who has taken the folksy bluegrass staple and moved it comfortably into realms of pop, jazz and classical. (Incidentally, Béla tapped Jake to play on a track of one of his recent albums, and they’ve been touring together in recent weeks.)

On many of his pieces, Jake’s playing is comparable to that of smooth-jazz acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh; not only is there a similar sound to the instruments, but also a gentle affinity for light melody. But that’s not the whole picture. Jake is capable of rocking out, plugging in and feeding his four strings through studio processing and effects devices, to get a sound like raw, distorted, lead guitar licks.

Once again, he has teamed up with Island producer Dr. Trey; most of the disc was recorded at the Hawai`i studio known as “The Doctor’s Office,” although there are a number of parts recorded in the bathrooms of hotels in which Shimabukuro stayed during promotional trips while creating this album. (They liked the “natural echoes” of the bathrooms, they say.) One of the songs, “Rainbow,” is used for the afore-mentioned TV commercials, which began airing in Tokyo and Osaka late in the spring. The title track, which incorporates rain and thunder sounds, is in reference to the occasional showers that regularly sweep across the Islands.

Other standout cuts include a cover of George Harrison’s Beatle-era classic, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – it turns out that Harrison had an affinity for the `ukulele, often bringing several out for party guests at his home to strum upon after dinner. Jake starts it off as a simple (if anything he plays could be described that way) solo piece, only to be joined by the rest of the band, who help him create a rocker, then they drop away at the conclusion, leaving Jake in the solo spotlight once more. There is also a gentle Japanese pop composition, “Hikaru Kaigara,” an emotional song originally recorded by Chitose Hajime.

With the exception of these two covers, the songs are all Jake’s compositions. The opening number, “Heartbeat,” is structured into several distinct sections, one of which becomes a vehicle for Shimabukuro’s rocket-fueled fingering (a gentler version of part of the piece provides the other bookend, closing the album.). The lovely “6 in the Morning” is one of the sweetest melodies in his repertoire, while “Wes On Four” is a wildly flying tribute to jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery.

Guest musicians include peripatetic drummer Noel Okimoto, Bryan Kessler on guitar, Steve Jones on bass, and pianist/co-engineer Pierre Grill.

The Japanese release of the CD is also available in a two-disc package which includes a DVD of two of the tourism commercials, along with a “making of” featurette on the promotion. Be warned, however, that the DVD is coded to play on Asian-region machines, and cannot be viewed on most American DVD players.

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