REVIEW BY BLAIR JACKSON / SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
By this point, nobody should be surprised by anything that Jake Shimabukuro does. He has always been a true eclectic, drawing on myriad styles as he strives to take the ukulele in new directions. So, that’s why on an early-ish album (Sunday Morning, 2005) he included a composition by Niccolò Paganini, a song from Bacharach & David, the ’50s instrumental classic “Sleep Walk,” and even the inescapable Celine Dion hit “My Heart Will Go On.” He’s tackled Paul Simon, Chick Corea, Leonard Cohen, Queen, and The Beatles. But mostly he’s written his own songs, which are as stylistically varied as his influences—you’ll find nods to rock, flamenco, surf music, bluegrass, R&B, new age, folk, Hawaiian; you name it. Everything he plays is imbued with his remarkably tasteful virtuosity, not to mention tremendous energy and, yes, love.
That said, I have not loved every album of his I have heard. Because they are so all over the map in terms of styles, there are often tunes that are simply not in my wheelhouse, so to speak—too bland new age-y; too formulaic middle-of-the-road pop. And it can go to the other end of the spectrum: too crunchy rock. Most of his 2016 Nashville Sessions album, based largely on live studio improvs with bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings and Jake playing ukes heavily altered by electronics, left me cold. 2018’s The Greatest Day felt like a return to form, while it still expanded the musical palette by adding electric guitarist Dave Preston as a de facto member of the “band” (as well as featuring several other outside musicians), and again mixing intelligent covers with strong originals.
The Jake Shimabukuro Trio album is a further evolution, this time featuring just the core of Jake, guitarist Preston, and bassist Verner, though through layering parts in the studio, they are capable of creating an at times huge sound. All three are credited as co-writers on the nine originals (there are four covers) and in my view it is a uniformly strong batch, again quite varied but with a pleasingly unified sound, thanks to the careful arrangements—the beds of electric and acoustic guitars, Jake’s ukuleles prominent, the bass both helping set down the rhythmic underpinnings in many cases and also dancing melodically throughout as another important voice.
Produced by Jake and R.S. Field and engineered by Jack Clarke, it’s a sonic marvel—every nuance is clearly audible, the parts distinct, the overall atmosphere dreamy yet present. Whether intended or not, I hear strong echoes of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and U2’s The Edge [David Evans] in Preston’s guitar parts. In the case of the former, it is explicit in the spot-on cover of “Wish You Were Here,” with its shimmering acoustic guitars panned right and left (Jake taking the melody in the center), but also in tunes like “Resistance,” which is also structured like a Pink Floyd song, and in “Lament,” which features slide work reminiscent of Gilmour on “Breathe.” The U2 vibe comes through in various rhythmic pulses and atmospheric washes. Jake, as always, sounds tremendous, sticking to purer uke tones for most of his lead parts, but also employing imaginative treatments here and there that mesh nicely with Preston’s guitars and the other production choices.
Among the standout originals are the propulsive, rockin’ “When the Mask Comes Down,” the flamenco-influenced “Red Crystal” (shades of Strunz & Farah), the quietly beautiful “Summer Rain,” and the lovely, flowing “On the Wing”; but they’re all strong and compelling. The other covers are the great old Hawaiian tune “Wai‘alae” (credited to Bob Brozman and Cyril Pahinui, but it predates their 1999 version by decades); the bluesy, new-to-me “Fireflies,” written by Coleman Bear Saunders; and a gorgeous, quite moving version of the Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac classic “Landslide,” with guest singer Rachel James effectively (if perhaps a tad too imitatively) handling the Nicks lead vocal.
All in all, a solid and stimulating album with lots of instrumental depth.