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Jake Shimabukuro Live: Ukulele Jazz

Jim Santella By

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Jake Shimabukuro
The Coach House
San Juan Capistrano, CA
February 2, 2007


One of the longest operating jazz venues in the neighborhood just south of Los Angeles, and Orange County's premier supper club, The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano continues to bring in some of the best musical artists. Their decision to bring in ukulele jazzman Jake Shimabukuro for a repeat performance this year meant another sold out event. For a club that holds nearly 500 patrons, that came as no surprise when you consider that Shimabukuro appeals to a wide cross-section of music lovers.

Although Shimabukuro is from Hawaii, his music doesn't contain the traditional ukulele themes that we associate with tropical gardens and lazy afternoons just a few steps from fresh, wind-swept beaches where the temperatures never go to the extreme. He plays progressive jazz: the kind that appeals to all generations and all tastes.

A virtuoso on the instrument, Shimabukuro's program of thirteen pieces, mostly from his album Gently Weeps, contained elements from Spanish classical guitar, popular modern song, Django Reinhardt, and featured sensual ballads along with some poignant originals.

Appearing in T-shirt and jeans, the highly personable young man communicated with the audience in a manner that clearly indicated his natural inclination for sharing, verbally as well as musically. His melodies floated like clouds when he brought a tune down to a soft purr, or low whisper, then gradually built it back up into a blaze as palpable as it was astonishing. Upon catching fire, his right hand was a blur. Between numbers, one audience member could be heard yelling out what many were feeling at the moment, "Jake, you're a god!

Here's a young man, playing on what many regard as an "island" or novelty instrument, who's launched his bandwagon in favor of creative jazz. His wide-ranging influences include friend and mentor Makoto Ozone, movie hero Bruce Lee, and the Beatles. We're all a product of our environment, but some have the talent that few can match. Jake Shimabukuro is such a phenomenon.

The Coach House brought in two musical groups to open for Shimabukuro. First up that Friday evening was an acoustic duo, The Brothers Lekas, who played guitar and mandolin. Their performance maintained a folk-ballad approach with a little rock intensity added to several numbers. Mandolinist Mark Lekas sang a moving piece that walked the fence between rock music and folk balladry, while his guitarist partner handled the vocals for the rest of the program. His singing was frankly terrible, but no one seemed particularly offended, since it crossed all genres and was delivered with a slapdash attitude.

The Usual Suspects filled the gap admirably between the night's less-than-appealing opening act and the main event. Consisting of singer/guitarist Shaun Shelton, singer/keyboardist Bob Greco, electric bassist John Steele, drummer Steve Greco and rhythm guitarist Andy Allison, the band gave us eight engaging and varied numbers that scored with the crowd: both lead singers brought pleasing voices along with thoughtful interpretations; the band's physical movement served as a wake-up call for the headliner; and the closer, a lovely Beatles remembrance, "Dear Prudence, proved equally effective as an opener. Since Shimabukuro's first number would be "While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the Usual Suspects, intentionally or not, left us with a bridge to the unusual, providing an appropriate segue for the high point of the evening.

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