On first listen, the new album by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Nashville Sessions, seems as adventurous, skillfully played, and instrumentally dazzling as his 11 other releases. The Hawaiian-born player can make his four-stringed instrument sound as sharp as an electric guitar or a mandolin, and Shimabukuro sounds just as comfortable on the album with classical pieces like "Tritone" as he does with heavy jazz-rock fusion workouts like "6/8." Playing in a trio setup with his longtime bassist Nolan Verner and Nashville drummer Evan Hutchings, Shimabukuro has created a body of songs that defies genre and will thrill any fan of instrumental mastery. But the real story of Nashville Sessions is how the album came to exist in the first place.
Acting on a suggestion from his manager, Shimabukuro walked into a Nashville recording studio last January with absolutely nothing prepared. "The idea was to go into the studio and create," he says, "to just jam and see what would happen. So we rented out a studio for six days, and I got Nolan Verner and Evan Hutchings, and we just played. We had no idea that at the end of the six days we were going to have a whole record. We were just hoping for maybe one or two tracks. So it was a really nice surprise and definitely unexpected."
In fact, Shimabukuro had never even met Hutchings before. "The first time I met Kevin was the first day in the studio, and we got in there and hit it off," he says. "I was very nervous, because I'd never gone into the studio unprepared like that before."
So why did he do this? Because he'd never quite felt the same energy in the studio as he had onstage. "I was talking with some of the people I worked with, and I was telling them that I felt like when I was performing live, there was this different kind of spontaneity about it that I love so much," he says. "It feels so in the moment and so present. And when I go into the studio and then listen to those records, they just don't have the same energy. I don't know what it is, but there's just a different feeling."
Shimabukuro eventually decided that the problem was preparation: There was too much. "When I go into the studio, I've been working on these tunes for so long, because I want to be as prepared as possible," he says. "I think some of the freshness is lost. Everything is planned out, and it's so rehearsed. So the idea was to experiment and do the complete opposite of what I normally do, so that's why we went in there unrehearsed — so everything I played was fresh; everything I wrote was fresh. It had that newness to it. It's like when you discover something for the first time. That energy is so different versus a song you've been playing for months or years. Sometimes you tend to go on autopilot. It's hard to keep that freshness to it."
So how does one go into the studio with nothing ready, then walk out six days later with an album? All Shimabukuro needed, apparently, was a really good start. "On the first day we got together and just started playing," he says. "I would start a groove and the drummer and the bass player would kind of jump in, and we just played. And it was neat because as soon as we started playing together, it felt like we'd been playing together for years; there was this instant connection. I told them I had this one idea for a song, because last year I had done this project where I premiered the world's first contemporary, classical ukulele piece, written for uke and orchestra by Byron Yasui. I kind of wanted to do something based on that for this project called 'Tritone.' I started playing this riff, and Nolan jumped on it and Evan started playing this great groove. That was the first song that we tried. And we tracked it on the first day."
That night, he reflected on what the trio had accomplished. "I was so inspired by the experience, I stayed up 'til 6 a.m. just writing," he says. "So the next day when we went back in, I said, 'Hey I wrote these two tunes, what do you think?' So then we started jamming them, and that's how we approached the whole thing."
The approach paid off in spades. Freed from having to record prewritten songs, Shimabukuro's playing is as adventurous and unfettered as it's ever been. "I just loved it, because I found myself playing things I never could've composed or done if I'd sat down and thought about it," he says. "It was so off-the-cuff; I was just reacting. There's no way I could've charted that out. It was a completely different experience."