April 7, 2011
How can you experience a mind-blowing jam featuring a 9-year-old savant pianist, a 16-year-old double-bass phenom, a senior Julliard violinist, a 12-year-old flamenco guitarist (with chops rivaling Paco De Lucia) and the greatest ukulele player in the world? Just check out NPR’s *From the Top* radio series, a celebration of America’s best young musicians hosted by Christopher O’Riley.
The Emmy Award-winning, non-profit program has been highlighting the best young musical talent around the country for more than a decade and on Thursday afternoon they held a live taping at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre (in part with the e.g. Conference).
The show kicked off with the enthusiastic, miniature piano genius of 9-year-old Ray Ushikubo, who played a piece by Chopin with the utter musicianship of a Julliard-trained student. The little guy never appeared to touch his tush to the piano bench. The kid also knows everything there is to know about Mercedes Benz and cares more about pleasing an audience than winning a competition.
There was also Jake Shimabukuro, hailed the best in the world at an unlikely instrument: the four-string, two-octave ukulele. The Hawaiian-native started playing the tiny guitar when he was four and was hooked from the moment he was taught three chords by his mother. His love of the instrument, somewhat popularized by Tiny Tim and stoners in the ‘60s, grew in high school after watching a Van Halen video: “That’s what a ukulele concert should be like,” he reminisced. About six years ago, Shimabukuro went viral with a YouTube video of him playing The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park. 8 million hits later, Shimabukuro is internationally known and his life is changed forever.
The live taping culminated with a jam session that included Shimabukuro, Ushikubo, From the Top-alum, violinist, Charles Yang, double bass high-schooler, Emily Brown and 12-year-old Roberto Granados on the guitar. The quintet played a Shimabukuro original, “Trapped,” resulting in a deserved standing ovation.
After that 2-hour spectacle, I now know why folks dig From the Top more than Car Talk.