Hawaiian-born ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro greeted his audience with "Aloha!" at the Cistern on Saturday night (May 30). He stood alone on the large stage, under the old moss-draped oaks, sans rhythm section or backing band, with only a microphone and a traditional ukulele in hand.
The lawn at the College of Charleston setting was completely filled with white folding chairs holding the largest Spoleto Jazz turnout that I've seen during my years of Spoleto coverage. They nearly ran out of seats. Dozens of extra onlookers lined the sidewalks on St. Philip and George streets, peering through the iron fence and listening in. Obviously, Shimabukuro's music appealed to an impressive cross-section of fans.
"Thanks so much for this great turnout," the personable, young-looking 32-year-old said during his warm introduction to the crowd. "Now I'm kind of nervous," he laughed.
From the beautiful sound and execution of his first number, an exciting flamenco piece titled "Let's Dance," nerves weren't a problem at all. He instantly captivated the audience with virtuosity and flair.
Making mention of Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon and rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen's technique, he explained that the next song "Dragon" managed to "really bring the East and the West together. "Dragon" bounced from a melancholic, almost weepy chord progression into a heavy-metal-style bridge of fiery finger-tapping and hammer-on action.
Shimabukuro's dynamic style certainly surprised some in the crowd who weren't quite sure what to expect. He often steered the music into mighty waves that were either very loud and full or very quiet moments where the ukulele was barely audible. He conjured some serious sustain and unexpectedly textured chordal sounds out of those four little strings. Sometimes, his instrument sounded more like a piano or a classical guitar than a traditional Hawaiian four-string.
Other musical highlights of the set included "Me and Shirley T," which showed some of his more percussive chops and string-bending effects, and "Sakura Sakura," which emulated the prickly plucking style of the 13-string Japanese koto. A lilting and passionate rendition of the Beatles' "In My Life" actually moved some at the Cistern to hum or sing along.
Late in the set, Shimabukuro delved into one of his more rhythmically tricky songs of the night, a brand-new original in 9/8 signature inspired by percussionist Ralph MacDonald (of Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band). It was a brief but dizzying piece — sort of a Shimabukuro version of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's similarly accented "Blue Ronda a la Turk."
This concert certainly was the most rock 'n' roll of jazz events Spoleto has hosted in recent years. An odd and healthy mix of old and young, preppies and hippies, and blue-collared and Charleston blue-bloods had a blast, and Shimabukuro sounded genuinely enthusiastic and excited. Super-cool on the mic while speaking between songs, he was even more expressive and sweet on the ukulele. —T. Ballard Lesemann