In 2005, Jake Shimabukuro released Dragon, an up-tempo affair that captured the imagination with its colorful original songs and swirling ukulele playing. Just a year later, Shimabukuro returns with his first solo ukulele contribution, Gently Weeps. The album proper was inspired by his recent tour, mixing original works with some well-known covers. The first 12 tracks of Gently Weeps offer an amazing illustration of how different the ukulele sounds when it stands alone. Taking his cue from the response to his solo shows, Shimabukuro offers up a very vulnerable side of himself.
First, the covers: The disc opens with and takes its name from George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. In Shimabukuro’s hands, this Quiet Beatle composition takes on a properly soothing air. The finger-picking is meticulous and layered on Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. It’s easy to loose yourself in the depth of the piece, and if you can pull yourself out of the relaxed state Shimabukuro puts you in, you’ll be reaching for the liner notes to confirm that it really is just one man and a ukulele creating such a rich expression.
It’s on Chick Corea’s “Spain” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Shimabukuro ends up doing what he does best, challenging conventional ideas about his chosen instrument. Pushing into a jazz vernacular, “Spain” finds Shimabukuro stretching the imagination and boundaries of the ukulele. Having been hailed as the “next Jimi Hendrix” by countless critics, it seems inevitable that he would tackle the American national anthem—and with similarly dizzying effects as Hendrix. This two-minute rendition is a beautiful sequel to Hendrix’s version, deftly testing the original work while remaining steadfastly reverential to it.
Shimabukuro’s personal compositions, though, are somewhat hit or miss in this solo setting. Tracks like “Heartbeat/Dragon” and “Let’s Dance” (which, like many of the songs here, appear elsewhere in Shimabukuro’s catalog) don’t lose any of their spunk. On the other hand, “Blue Roses Falling” and “Grandma’s Groove”, while technically sound, feel somewhat slighted in their stand-alone format.
The first two of five bonus tracks (all of which employ a full band behind Shimabukuro) are unremarkable, but in the same orbit as the solo work. The three tracks that finish out the disc take the listener completely out of the proper album’s experience. The songs are beautifully rendered from soundtracks Shimabukuro has worked on—two tracks from the movie Hula Girl sandwich one from the TV show Beyond the Break. The eponymous Beyond the Break number, for all intents and purposes, sounds exactly like the rockified television soundtrack it is: electric guitar fuzz and rote drumwork behind furious ukulele picking—all trading the lead throughout. The two movie soundtrack pieces are beautifully crafted. “Wish on My Star” even adds an element to Shimabukuro’s work I had not heard before: vocals. Jennifer Perri’s voice complements the Udai Shika String Quartet and Shimabukuro’s sweet strumming.
The album serves as a greatest hits of sorts for Shimabukuro, as the majority of the songs presented here have been previously recorded and released. I understand what he is trying to accomplish—continually pushing the limits of what his four-string, two-octave instrument is capable of—and from a technical standpoint it’s hard to not stand slack-jawed at what he’s doing. But while the spirit of Hawaii certainly promotes a laid-back state of mind, the songs recast on Gently Weeps in solo ukulele form sometimes veer too far into easy listening territory.