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Ukulele Rhapsody

October 22, 2009

jake.jpegUkulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has made a name for himself for pushing the ukulele to its aesthetic limits. But is it necessary to push the instrument so far that we don't get to hear the uke at all? Shimabukuro's San Francisco Jazz Festival concert last night at Davies Symphony Hall started off as a bit of a letdown, frankly, primarily because the performer seemed intent on having us forget that he plays the uke at all.

The instrument was miked, completely ruining its delicate sound. Thanks to this and long sections of rock-style strumming, the uke sounded more like a guitar than anything else. At times, such as when he played a song in the style of a koto (a Japanese 13-stringed instrument), the effect was mesmerizing. More often than not though, I got bored by the performer's endless attempts to look and sound like a member of Nirvana or the Black Eyed Peas.

In the second half of the program, things picked up. Shimabukuro started plucking his instrument with much more regularity. Intricate finger-work, passionate delivery and wide-ranging dynamics infused all the pieces he played. I particularly loved his use of harmonics. He made his instrument sing and for the first time in the evening's program, he showed us what the ukulele really sounds like when it's played damn well. At last, I felt like I was listening to the instrument I came to hear.

By the time the finale rolled around, the musician's never-before-performed take on Queen's schizophrenic idyll, Bohemian Rhapsody, (you have to hear Shimabukuro play this song to understand what an amazing musician he is) I was a complete convert to his sound.

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