Jake Shimabukuro is a lithe little guy. His chosen instrument, the ukulele, is at first glance diminutive and unprepossessing.
Yet put them together, and they loom large.
Shimabukuro, the celebrated Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, played Nov. 17 in Kleinhans Music Hall's Mary Seaton Room, giving a good-sized crowd a taste of what he can do. Aided by just a bass player, he covered a world of sounds and genres.
He rocked out on certain numbers, maxing out the instrument's capabilities. It wasn't designed for that, I worried once when he cranked it until it thundered and screeched. He's going to break it! But all was well, and on we went. On the other end of the spectrum there was a lot of great delicacy, sometimes when you least expected it -- say, in the Beatles' "Come Together."
His technique makes him a god among ukulele players. (Buffalo boasts more than a few. The Buffalo Ukulele Club serenaded Kleinhans before the show.) Flamenco strumming, which I understand is among ukulele players' biggest challenges, was nothing to him. Ornaments, with their crisp clarity, were a pleasure to hear. He tossed them off with no apparent exertion.
He showed classical grace in a moving cover of Schubert's "Ave Maria," delineating the harmonies just right. That song was part of a stream-of-consciousness medley that began with the late Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (a Shimobukura standard) and wended its way through Irving Berlin's "Always," the Beatles' "In My Life," and the Errol Garner classic "Misty."
Oh, and the medley also meandered through "It's a Wonderful World." Unexpectedly, in the middle, Shimabukuro stepped up to the mic and, in full Louis Armstrong growl, roared out: "The colors of the rainbow..." It was one of the great comic moments I have witnessed at Kleinhans. That was the only time all evening Shimabukuro ever sang.
That witty moment gets to the heart of his appeal. He radiates joy and warmth.
He had an ongoing, self-deprecating joke involving the titles he slaps on songs. "Tritone" was one. "F Minor" was another. Yet another original sprang from "My Dog Has Fleas," a ukulele learning tool similar to a pianist's "Every Good Boy Does Fine." Shimabukuro, by the way, says "ook-e-lele," not "yuke-e-lele." I want to start doing likewise.
The night grew warmer as it went on. There was a luminous Hawaiian folk song. And George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a ballad Shimabukuro is famous for covering. And an original song with a Japanese title which, Shimabukuro explained, referred to the fleeting magic that happens when a group of people are together, a group that will never be together again in exactly the same way. In other words, it refers to a concert like this one.
What a sweet occasion this was. Shimabukuro was here last fall, playing a concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. I had to miss that concert, but I imagine this one was more intimate. The audience included the BPO's music director, JoAnn Falletta, and executive director, Dan Hart. Everyone seemed rapt.
Shimabukuro thrived on the atmosphere. He heaped lavish thanks on everyone, from Falletta down to the volunteers and ushers. That doesn't happen often, that the ushers are mentioned. Folks were smiling about that at the end of the night. Folks were also smiling getting pictures taken with Shimabukuro, who obligingly hung out in the lobby. Mine went right up on Facebook.
Missed it? All is not lost. Judging from the amount of love Shimabukuro sent in Falletta's direction, I wonder if there are plans in the works for another appearance.
Let's cross our fingers.