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Over the course of the past 15 years, Jake Shimabukuro has challenged and changed all notions of what was possible with a ukulele. But on his latest album, Trio, the acclaimed musician begins a bold and exciting new chapter in his already remarkable career.
Unlike previous releases on which Shimabukuro sometimes utilized studio musicians recording songs he’d already written, Trio is radically different: It’s a true band album.
The only sounds on the record are performed by himself, bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston, and many of the songs were composed spontaneously in the studio. In this way, Trio lives up to its title as a fully immersive document of the sonic alchemy the three musicians achieve on stage.
“I really wanted to capture the sound that we make when we jam together,” Shimabukuro explains. “We get into this amazing improvisational zone at soundchecks: Nolan will play a cool bassline, and Dave will chime in with these incredible guitar parts. Then I’ll come in right after and play melodies to what they’re doing. So I finally said, ‘We should just go into the studio, hit ‘record’ and see what happens. It would be an experiment, but I had a feeling that great things would come from it.”
Verner and Preston jumped at the opportunity to transfer their live approach to the studio. Earlier this year, they holed up with Shimabukuro in Nashville’s Sound Emporium with only a few snippets of riffs and melodies fleshed out, and over the course of a week jams took flight and became songs. Guiding the process was producer R.S. Field (Steve Earle, Webb Wilder), whose relationship with Shimabukuro began with 2016’s Nashville Sessions and continued with 2018’s The Greatest Day. “R.S. has such amazing ears and instincts, and he was fearless in how he let us go for it,” Shimabukuro enthuses.
“Fearless” aptly describes how Shimabukuro, Verner and Preston created “When the Masks Come Down,” the opening track on Trio. A beguiling mix of ambient, Edge-like patterns, incandescent melodies and mammoth hard-rock crunch, it unfolded like magic during a studio jam. “We just get going back and forth, inspiring each other,” Shimabukuro recalls. “It’s unbelievable how we can start out with nothing, but before long we’ve got a very big ‘something’ going on.”
A very different process attended the writing of “Twelve,” a bewitching metaphysical mood piece. Although Shimabukuro based its structure on Set Theory, a branch of mathematics that also corresponds to the 12 tones of the Western music scale, one doesn’t have to be an academic to luxuriate in the song’s bountiful beauty. As Preston says, “The track just grabs you and has its way with you. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”
“Resistance” is an evocative gem, brimming with playful, echo-drenched ukulele lines that dance wildly around Preston’s wistful chordal work. The track segues into “Lament,” a deeply transfixing experience in which the three players lock into a shared meditative moment – there’s soothing bass, soaring ukulele tones and sweeping lap steel – that is sure to captivate listeners.
The mood shifts abruptly – joyously and energetically so – on the next cut, a spirited take on flamenco peppered with Preston’s briskly strummed acoustic guitar and Shimabukuro’s sensual, Spanish-flavored melodies. “We didn’t have a title for it,” says Shimabukuro, “but when I played it for one of my sons, he said that we should call it ‘Red Crystal.’ And it made so much sense – like the color flamenco red, but the sounds are like crystals.”
Inspired by the recent birth of his own son, Verner came up with the basis for “Morning Blue.” Fittingly, the song unfolds like a tender lullaby, full of gentle atmospherics and Shimabukuro’s angelic ukulele touches. “I had the idea for it when my wife was pregnant,” Verner remembers. “I showed it to the guys, and they loved it and ran with it.”
And it was Preston, late one night in the studio, who spearheaded “Summer Rain.” “He started playing this progression that was just perfect,” says Shimabukuro. “So we quickly jumped on it, and by the next morning we recorded it.” Elegant and tranquil, the track glides by on Preston’s arresting acoustic guitar patterns and swirling lap steel textures while Verner responds with rolling bass and Shimabukuro adds all manner of shimmering, cascading ukulele touches.
Re-imaging beloved classics has become a Shimabukuro specialty, and on Trio, he and the band have their own unique way with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” The suggestion to record the song came from Skimabukuro’s longtime manager, Van Fletcher, a dedicated Floyd fan who had given the ukulele titan the album of the same name years ago and pressed him to listen to it – which he did. Acting on such inspiration, the three musicians turn in a glorious reading – the blend of Preston’s rustic guitar lines, Verner’s richly intuitive bass playing along with Shimabukuro’s ravishing treatment of melodies is one of the album’s standout moments.
The frisky and flighty lyricism of the aptly named “Fireflies” makes for sustained bliss, and Shimabukuro gives a big shout-out to the tune’s composer (who also happens to be his longtime video director), Coleman Saunders. “I was jamming with Coleman one night in the studio, and I started improvising over what he was doing. Dave came in and was knocked out. The next day, we asked Coleman if we could record it, and he was thrilled. It was just so cool and vibey – we had to do it.”
Shimabukuro has always loved the traditional Hawaiian song “Waialae,” and he has fond memories of performing it with fellow islanders the Side Order Band on his first tour of Japan some 25 years ago. As a tribute to the group, he includes an impeccable version of the tune on Trio. Each member shines spectacularly during this engaging trip.
The three musicians spread the waters of pastoral folk on the heavenly “On the Wing,” which Shimabukuro viewed as “a simple ukulele song” when he started writing it. “That was until R.S. Field suggested to Dave that he should triple his lap steel. Suddenly, the tune took on a George Harrison vibe, and everything Dave played really complemented the other instruments. The whole thing just opened up – it was unreal.”
The title of “Strong in the Broken Places” comes from a line in an Ernest Hemingway quote, but listeners won’t find one weak spot in its enthralling blend of soundscapes and courtly melodic lyricism. Trio could have ended there and been considered a triumph, but Shimabukuro, Verner and Preston conclude with an incandescent version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that features a sparkling vocal performance by Preston’s wife, Rachel James. (When he’s not touring or recording with Shimabukuro, Preston plays with James in the Denver-based folk-rock band Dearling.)
“I’ve always loved Fleetwood Mac,” says Shimabukuro, “and I just adore the sound of Rachel’s voice – she’s played with us live. When we decided to record the song, I knew we had to have Rachel sing it, and she did an incredible job.”
For Japanese fans, Trio boasts a bonus track, “143,” but in no way is it a casual throwaway. A richly transcendent mix of folk and Hawaiian styles, it casts an otherworldly spell, and the fullness of feeling that the three musicians coax from their instruments is a supreme pleasure.
Music fans will no doubt hail Trio as an highwater mark for Shimabukuro, and the artist himself regards it as a personal best. “Beyond playing the ukulele, I’ve really tried to grow as a writer,” he says. “Spending time in Nashville and being around great songwriters has inspired and influenced me, and of course, working with Nolan and Dave has brought me to musical places I never thought possible. I’m so proud of the music we make together, and I can’t thank them, R.S. Field and Van Fletcher for everything that they do. This record really captures our collective spirit, and I can’t wait to get out there and play these songs live.”