Friday, May 29, 2009

The Best

Jake Shimbabukuro--"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (link to YouTube)

How often, on this planet of over 6 billion people, can one of us say that we have encountered the person who is the best at his or her trade? More amazingly, how often has that occurred in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee?

Last night, I saw the finest ukelele player in the world. Most certainly, I saw the finest ukelele player who has ever yet lived.

I know what you are thinking: Bob, I'm certainly not in a position to contest your assertion, but aren't we talking about a large fish in a very, very, very small pond? And, by the way, who is the second best ukelele player in the world, just for comparison's sake?

I may not have all of the answers for you, certainly not for the last question. But what I saw and heard last night, Jake Shimabukuro at Rhythm N Brews, was one of the most awe-inspiring, innovative performances I have ever seen. It must be some small taste of what it was like to see Hendrix that first time and to not know what you were in for, providing that Jimi played an acoustic ukelele, of course.

That's what seems to take it down a notch or two or three. But I'm not so sure. Even though, despite his mounting international acclaim, Shimbabukuro plays off of those lowered expectations, it is clear that he is doing that for the audience's sake only. This man is a virtuoso, with a virtuoso's pedigree, having performed and recorded with everyone from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to Jimmy Buffet to Yo-Yo Ma. You do not get those invites without spectacular skills.

In the hour and a half that we saw him perform, Shimbabukuro took his ukelele everywhere from Spanish flamenco playing to 13-stringed traditional Japanese instrument, the koto, and, of course, did it all with only 4 strings. In concert, at least, Shimbabukuro plays mostly originals, and while he already has complete command of his instrument, these songs allow the audience to experience his continual attempts to expand the capabilities of the ukelele.

While I have no other ukeleleist to compare him to, I do have Butch Ross, who opened the show. An innovator in his own right, Ross is a guitarist turned mountain dulcimerist who also takes his instruments in directions that others have not considered (or were not capable of). At first, his songs were stunning. As you can see from the photo, he plays the dulcimer like a guitar and not in the traditional manner on one's lap. But Ross was all about speed, and every instrumental, whether it was traditional bluegrass or an interpretation of "Stairway To Heaven" (very cool, using a tape loop), ended up as a pickaway. Even his finale, Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" was played way too fast and emphasized the instrument over the vocals and story.

Shimbabukuro, by contrast, is a showman. He immediately connects with the audience with genuine warmth, celebrating the intimacy of the Rhythm N Brews concert space and displaying an infectious love of what he does. He understands pacing, varying fast and slow songs (and fast and slow parts within songs). He strums like Montoya, taps like Eddie Van Halen, and works the whole fretboard with both power and sensitivity like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Though the crowd was filled with followers, there were no shouts for requests, and so, even though Shimbabukuro stayed in command, he constantly rewarded the audience like a master chef who doesn't ask for orders but continues to send out spectacular dish after spectacular dish.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of life is when an initial limitation leads to adaptation, discovery, and innovation. Jake Shimbabukuro was the show you wished you had seen, even though you didn't know you wanted to go. But for a student demanding I watch the YouTube video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," I wouldn't have known either. Let's hope he'll be back.


John said...

That is one great youtube!

troutking said...

Wish I'd gone...damn the Tommy/Bevan!!!