A couple of weeks ago saw the release of Jake Shimabukuro’s latest album titled Nashville Sessions. I picked up an early copy of it on CD and vinyl and have had it in my ears since I saw him perform in Tacoma, WA a few weeks ago. It is amazing and we will definitely go back to it! However, I wanted to pay homage to the recent loss of a powerful yet subtly
nuanced singer from Hawai’i’s music scene. Last week both Ernie Cruz Jr and brother Guy Cruz passed away in two very separate events. It came as a shock to the community and many are still in mourning. In times like these, I think it’s important to remember the beautiful music these two men made in celebration of their life.Now we have listened to Ernie Cruz Jr with Troy Fernandez as the Ka’au Crater Boys, but we have yet to hear Guy here on UkePrints. I have posted links below featuring previous articles of the Ka’au Crater Boys.
After the break up of Pure Heart, there was a void in Hawai’i’s music scene for an island contemporary group of smooth vocals, elaborate percussion, and virtuosic ‘ukulele playing. Percussionist Lopaka Colón and Shimabukuro decided to form a new group which brought on board Andrew McLellan playing bass and Guy Cruz on guitar and vocals. The band was to be named Colón after Lopaka’s father legendary percussionist Augie Colón. Their one release in 2000 is titled The Groove Machine featuring 14 unique tracks that blend in a tapestry of genres, textures, and themes. It is worth it to listen to the album as a whole, though that doesn’t take away from individual tracks shining. I always keep an eye out for this CD at shops as it is a rare find. The latest listing on Amazon for a sealed copy is somewhere around the $130 mark.
I relistened to the album a few times this past week to help me choose this week’s UkePrints. Though my initial hypothesis was correct with my conclusion and today we are going to listen to a personal favorite track of mine (on and off the album) titled Kelley Anne. This groovy jazzy piece features wonderful interplay with the musicians through counterpoint, cryptic yet oddly relatable lyrics, and an in the pocket groove that allows the group to weave in and out of different musical ideas. You can really hear the chemistry as soon as the groove drops in.
Shimabukuro starts the tune with a beautiful and melodic cadenza. The mixture of downstrokes and expressive single notes create a very vocal effect. Each note has intent, void of flashy technique and letting the musical qualities of the passage do the work. I love how you can hear him savoring the right notes to create a lofty and dreamy introduction (0:12). Holding the resolution, Shimabukuro’s rhythm ‘ukulele enters with the swing of a big band. The groove is established in seconds as the steady bass mixed in with the syncopation of the percussion hit you like a train. Cruz’s raspy vocals work perfectly in juxtaposition to the smooth feel of the instruments as they work their way through verse and chorus. Shimabukuro hops around with colorful chords moving in and out of the forefront between Cruz’s vocals and the Astrid Gilberto like background vocals. The ‘ukulele solo is nothing less than sublime as Shimabukuro seems to channel Stan Getz in phrasing and feel. Though he doesn’t lose himself to his influence as Shimabukuro keeps his distinguishable tone. A few chromatic passages (1:29), hammer-ons with pull-offs (1:40), and the bridge sees the background vocals ease their way back to the center as Shimabukuro uses syncopated counterpoint to create a rich peak for the solo (1:46). With the slow decay of the background vocals (1:58), Shimabukuro answers with a final 8 bars before the Cruz’s vocals take over. Peppered throughout the tune, both ‘ukulele tracks (rhyhm and overdub fills) are constantly moving and creating variation. Shimabukuro solos in the outro starting with an octave run into quintessential “Jake licks” before all the instruments come to a soft landing (3:08).
A few things to note on Shimabukuro’s playing as a whole:
While The Groove Machine as a whole is a precursor to Shimabukuro’s solo career and a great way to see his playing evolve to what it is today, his genius and what I believe to be some of the connective threads that allow him to reach such a broad audience beyond people just interested ‘ukulele is found in the details of this song. And yes, while a lot of the pyrotechnics of ‘ukulele shredding helped launch him into stardom, it is the subtleties and overarching musicality that has gotten many listeners to stay, myself included.
His approach to Kelley Anne never oversteps nor does he overplay. Each note is in compliment to the movement and feel of the song using as much technique as necessary without making it an exhibition of his chops. His playing adds to the overall arc of the song and doesn’t compete with it. We all know Shimabukuro can play, on a technical level, beyond what’s found in Kelley Anne but to see this power held in reverse brings strength and clarity into his playing. Shimabukuro also has a wonderful use of volume dynamics and control over the attack of each note. In conjunction with the quality of the recording, you can hear the dynamic ceiling and floor of his ‘ukulele in both the silence of the intro and the busyness of the solo.
Shimabukuro is one of the masters but acts like a humble student. As long as he is playing music, we will continue to see the growth and development of our four-stringed friend.
UkePrints is a curated playlist of some essential ukulele tracks that all ukulele player should listen to. These songs have left a legacy for future players and in essence, sound impressions of the ‘ukulele or what I like to call them: UkePrints.
‘Ukulele Artist & Educator