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Uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro returns

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Dazzling playing style on display May 23 with Oregon Symphony

COURTESY: KAYOKO YAMAMOTO - Ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro, who plays Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on May 23, says the instrument's popularity stems from its sound — 'it's very close to (the sound of) children laughing.'Since his breakout hit in 2006 — a sensational YouTube cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" — Jake Shimabukuro has become so widely respected for his talent that critics have compared him to rock and jazz legends Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis.

To those who don't know him, Honolulu-born Shimabukuro, 40, plays the humble ukulele — but in a way most people have never seen or heard it before.

He's known for his dizzyingly complex finger work, and compositions inspired by elements of of jazz, blues, funk, rock, bluegrass, classical, folk and flamenco.

He'll be in Portland to play with the Oregon Symphony on Tuesday, May 23, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, performing his latest, greatest songs from his fall 2016 album "Nashville Sessions," his first album with all original songs.

It's a freestyle collaboration with two top freestyle Nashville session players, bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings.

The Tribune caught up with the virtuoso this month as he took a break from his international tour at home in Honolulu — where he was spending time with his wife and two young sons at the beach, fishing, relaxing and playing music:

Tribune: You are constantly reinventing your sound and style, approaching this latest album like a jazz trio record but with a more progressive rock sound. Do you ever think, "Are my fans going to get it?" Are you limited by external pressures, or do you go wherever it takes you?

Shimabukuro: This one was definitely my most adventurous (albums). Steering away from the traditional sounds of the ukulele — that's what kind of worried me. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but after we were done, I remember listening to it and thinking, "Wow, this is not what I would expect if I picked up a ukulele record." But for me, it was a great learning experience. I got to discover a different side of myself. Some of the phrasing, melodic ideas, rhythmic ideas — that has never come out of me before.

Because I don't get (mainstream) radio play, I think the people who probably listen to my albums are people who just enjoy the ukulele. As long as the ukulele is on there, it's OK.

Tribune: You've played for Queen Elizabeth II and so many other dignitaries and rock stars. Who's your dream audience or collaboration?

Shimabukuro: A dream collaboration of mine is Eric Clapton, who played the original guitar solo on (George Harrison's "While May Guitar Gently Weeps"). It would be so awesome to play with him on that and just (watch him) shred the solo on that. I would just be in heaven. I have a whole bucket list of musicians I hope to meet someday and play with. (Nashville bassist) Edgar Meyer is one of my heroes. Yo-Yo Ma is one of my childhood heroes, and I did get to record and play with him. Bruno Mars (also a Honolulu native) is just incredible. He makes all of us so proud. (Same for Hawaii native Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock, who attended the same middle school a few years earlier.)

COURTESY: COLEMAN SAUNDERS - Jake ShimabukuroTribune: You are really living the dream — you get to play your favorite instrument around the world for a living. Any drawbacks to the lifestyle?

Shimabukuro: It's just a lot of fun. The physical part of getting from place to place can be challenging and overwhelming at times. But the music is just so much fun — being able to perform, get up on the stage in front of a different audience every night. I wish I could be teleported to different cities. But it's all worth it. I absolutely love it.

Tribune: What do you think about Oregon and the Pacific Northwest?

Shimabukuro: I love Oregon. The people there are so laid back, so chill. It's just such a unique vibe there and I always enjoy my time there. I love Pink Martini. I remember I went through a phase when I had a multiple disc changer and the two bands I had were Pink Martini and 8 1/2 Souvenirs (a jazz swing band).

Tribune: What is it about the ukulele that is so magical for people, no matter where they live?

Shimabukuro: It's so easy to play, so simple to learn chords. It's one of few if not the only string instruments where you can play a series of related chords with one finger on a single string. I often tell people that because the ukulele doesn't have any bass notes, and it falls into upper register, it's very close to (the sound of) children laughing. I think those higher tones are very pleasing to the ear. Like when you listen to a music box, it's high and twinkly — just kind of uplifting, peaceful and makes you smile.

Presented by the Oregon Symphony, Jake Shimabukuro plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway. Tickets start at $35. For more: www.portland5.com.

@jenmomanderson