The last twelve months have been exciting ones for fans of 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter. There has been the release of his cooperative band Garage a Trois' Emphasizer ; a duo record with Bobby Previte, Come In Red Dog This Is Tango Leader ; and a live recording from his mid-'90s collective TJ Kirk, Talking Only Makes It Worse. Coming up in the near term is the first of a projected three-CD project on Thirsty Ear, again with Previte, but with other folks appearing as guests (the first disk, Groundtruther , with Greg Osby, is due out August 24). But possibly the most important event this year is the arrival, on the same day, of two new disks for his current label, Ropeadope. His new trio CD, Friends Seen and Unseen , and a live solo/quintet DVD of his Right Now Move band, Right Now Live! , gives long-time fans a well-deserved fix and larger insight into his unique capabilities. The two releases also serve as strong entry points for listeners who have heard the name but have yet to take the plunge.
For those unfamiliar, Hunter plays an unwieldy-looking instrument that combines three bass guitar strings with five standard guitar strings and yes, it is as difficult to play as it sounds. Hunter, over the course of his twelve-year solo career, has gone from an interesting but rudimentary playing style evolving from relatively simple bass accompaniment underneath more outgoing guitar work, to becoming a true example of independent thought and movement. More than mere ambidexterity, he has reached a level where his bass and guitar parts would be ambitious undertakings on their own, but when played together they reach a new level of personal interplay, interdependence and distinction. His ability to play parts that are sometimes rhythmically at odds with each other is more than remarkable, it is frightening. He has taken what was originally treated as a bit of a novelty and raised it to a level of art for which there is no real frame of reference.
Friends Seen and Unseen
Friends Seen and Unseen returns Hunter to the trio format that started his career, but what a difference. Youthful bravado has been replaced by a mature, but no less exuberant, approach. Why Hunter was originally lumped in with the jam band crowd is a mystery, but the level of detail to his writing now, the economy of playing and the harmonic and rhythmic advances that he has made clearly distance him from that faction. Teamed with reedman John Ellis, who has been playing with Hunter since his final Blue Note release, Songs from the Analog Playground , and drummer Derrek Phillips, who first appeared on Hunter's Ropeadope début, Right Now Move , also make for a more developed trio sound. Ellis' tenor is the perfect confluence of Joe Lovano's gutsy sound and Maceo Parker's grease and grit. Phillips' background is clearly varied, as much Jim Keltner as Jimmy Cobb.
The album also sees Hunter back with producer Lee Townsend, who oversaw his first four disks before Hunter began to self-produce. There's nothing wrong with doing it yourself, and Hunter has always had strong instincts, but Townsend manages to pull a greater variety of textures and feels out of Hunter than he has demonstrated before within the confines of a single release.
There are plenty of infectious grooves to be found. "One for the Kelpers" ambles along with just enough soul to give it meat. "Freedom Tickler" has shades of John Scofield's fusion efforts, with a choppy bass line, slightly "out there" chordal accompaniment and askew saxophone theme that give everyone plenty of room to move when it comes time to solo. "Lulu's Crawl" has a gritty New Orleans feel that, again, seems to have some reference in Scofield. This is nothing new in Hunter's writing; as far back as Ready, Set, Shango he has demonstrated a similar penchant for writing abstruse lines over rhythms and feels that are rooted in blues, New Orleans and gospel. But his solo style on the guitar side of his instrument is far removed from Scofield's more linear approach. Maybe it's the restrictions of his instrument, but I'll wager Hunter thinks of it more as a liberating characteristic of the beast that finds him developing more close interplay between two halves of his playing, even while he simultaneously achieves greater levels of independence.
While Hunter's signature organ emulation sound is here, this set finds him experimenting with more guitar tones than usual. "Soweto's Where It's At" has a clean sound that is warmer than anything he's used before. A sharper, more acerbic tone can be found on "Lulu's Crawl." "Lulu's Crawl" also ups the ante by having him use a wah wah pedal; as if it isn't enough to deal with the separate thought processes required to play bass and guitar parts, he has to make it even more confounding by throwing a third variable into the mix.
Arguably the most stylistically diverse record Hunter has ever recorded, there are even hints at a more free approach on "Shuffle." "Bonus Round" dabbles with irregular meters, while "Moore's Alphabet," surely a nod to Garage a Trois cohort Stanton Moore, closes the album with some greasy New Orleans funk.
Hunter is said to have remarked, when he dropped the finished album to Ropeadope, that it is his best record yet. With his diverse discography these are strong words indeed, and while its position at the top of the heap may be subjective, it clearly stands in the upper reaches. Certainly it is an album by an artist who is growing in palpable leaps and bounds; while the broader instrumental textures of his quintet album are missed, there is a greater sense of freedom, and a certain unencumbered feeling about the disk that sees it stand well on its own as a fine new entry in his growing body of work.
Right Now Live!
If listening to Hunter isn't enough to convince you that this is one serious case of a man with two, maybe more, brains in operation simultaneously, watching him will cinch the deal. Right Now Live! captures Hunter and his quintet in an intimate studio recording that gives the group an audience to work off without sacrificing control in the audiovisual department. Hunter, Ellis and Phillips are joined by trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and chromatic harmonica player Gregoire Maret, for a programme of tracks from their Right Now Move CD.
But first Hunter is given the chance to play in a solo context. Through four tracks, including his own "Recess," the soul classic, "Someday We'll All Be Free," the standard "Stars Fell on Alabama," and an up-tempo version of Stevie Wonder's "Too High," Hunter demonstrates, with plenty of close-ups, exactly how he does what he does. The scary thing is, even when you see how he does it, you are still left wondering: exactly how does he do it? Like a typist who manages to always have the right finger available for the right key, no matter how articulate his bass line is, no matter how dextrous his guitar work is, he never misses a beat. As his left hand is required to move up the neck to accommodate an ascending guitar line, he still manages, through use of open strings and plain magic, to find the right place to situate his bass notes. While this is unquestionably the result of years of wood-shedding, it all appears to be so effortless for him that one wonders if he wasn't just born this way.
"Too High" is the highlight of the first portion of the program. Taken at a strong clip, it is a minute or two into the song before the familiar theme appears. Hunter plays liberally with the tune's structure, and nowhere is his staggering technique more evident. He finds a way to let notes ring even while the rest of his fingers are moving across the fingerboard in search of new ideas; and when one considers that the lion's share of the bass parts are played with only the thumb of his left hand - there has to be an extra joint in there somewhere. This is exciting stuff.
The voltage level is raised yet again when the rest of the group joins Hunter onstage. Most immediately apparent is exactly how much Hunter enjoys doing this. Too many artists approach their music with a deep seriousness, a certain severity that disconnects them from their audience, but Hunter's pure joy at being there is infectious.
While the instrumentation - guitar/bass, saxophone, trombone, harmonica, drums - would seem unusual it does, in fact, provide Hunter with a wide range of colours within the confines of a small ensemble, comfortably delivering strong unison, harmony and contrapuntal melodies Sax and trombone provide punctuating shots behind Maret's mind-numbing solo on "Mali." Harmonica and trombone provide the same function behind Ellis' muscular tenor work. And Fowlkes, who has to be one of the most underrated trombonists alive today, growls and rasps, moans and howls on his instrument. Phillips' solo on Mestre Tata is a tribute to the muscular lyricism of Tony Williams.
The DVD production is superb, with clean and simple camera work and rich 5.1 surround and stereo mixes. While there are not much in the way of extra features, there is a multi-angle capability during the quintet numbers, that allows you to zero in on Hunter's hands, for those of you daring enough to want to try this at home.
That Hunter is still in his mid-30s is nothing short of astounding. In the space of a little more than a decade he has carved out a completely personal niche. His music and playing style, gymnastics aside, are instantly recognizable, whether he is in a duo, trio, quartet or quintet format. Couple that with the fact that there is, quite simply, nobody being recorded today who is doing what he does and you have an artist who is significant and consequential. Existing fans will be more than happy with these two new releases, and for those of you who haven't heard him yet - what are you waiting for?
Visit Charlie Hunter and Ropeadope on the web.
Right Now Live! (DVD):
Charlie Hunter - 8-string guitar and Pandeiro
John Ellis - Tenor Saxophone, Bass Clarinet
Derrek Phillips - Drums
Curtis Fowlkes - Trombone
Gregoire Maret - Chromatic Harmonica
Friends Seen and Unseen (CD):
Charlie Hunter - 8-string guitar and Pandeiro
John Ellis - Tenor Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Flute
Derrek Phillips - Drums
Right Now Live! :
Solo: Recess; Someday We'll All Be Free; Stars Fell on Alabama; Too High
Quintet: Mali; Mestre Tata; Oakland; Changui; Try; 20th Century
Friends Seen and Unseen : One for the Kelpers; Freedom Tickler; Lulu's Crawl; Darkly; Soweto's Where It's At; Shuffle; Slow Blues; Bonus Round; My Son the Hurricane; Moore's Alphabet