First-time encounters with Charlie Hunter in a live setting usually leave listeners numb with the realization of how much music Hunter can make with one instrument. It's a sobering experience to see him play melody, chordal accompaniment and bass lines all at once on his custom eight-string guitarwhich is obviously a most unnatural feat, even though he's been honing it for quite some time. The way he loses control of his facial muscles in the process, often succumbing to a characteristic lippy snarl, ought to offer a tip about the obscene mind-body coordination required.
But take a step back from the element of virtuosity, consider the way the parts fit together, and Hunter's playing actually fits pretty well into the jazz organ tradition. Hammond organists use pedals to play bass lines, employing a four-limbed approach for self-accompaniment. They usually don't draw great acclaim for the complexity or vision of their footwork, but they would rather do it themselves than work with a bassist, because it allows them to integrate their sound from top to bottom.
Hunter does exactly this on Copperopolis, as he has quite consistently (and successfully) done since his self-titled trio debut over a decade ago. He's shifted around some in the meantime, but here he plays the material he's best suited for: loose-limbed excursions through funk, soul jazz, blues, rock, and various intersections around the borders of these genres. His trio rides the backbeat from all angles, combining it with the memorable melodic insistence of popular song, the improvisational emphasis of jazz, and a relaxed swing. His bandmates are also eager to twist and shift gears, keeping this rocky material well away from any zone of predictability. The funked-up Monkish closer promises to literally explode in live performance.
Copperopolis, which was recorded last May in New Orleans, also marks a milestone for Hunter's five year-old trio with drummer Derrek Phillips and reedist John Ellis. In addition to tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Ellis, a longtime Hunter collaborator, also plays Wurlitzer and melodica, using those unusual keyboards to inject a dose of horizontal texture and reinforce the organ tradition that has underpinned Hunter's music since the beginning. If, as the publicity predicts, Hunter, Phillips and Ellis are "gonna stick together, grow old together"meaning we can look forward to more smart combinations and corporeal jams like the ones on Copperopolisthen count me in for the ride.
Visit Charlie Hunter, Derek Phillips and John Ellis on the web.
Personnel: Charlie Hunter: eight-string guitar; Derrek Phillips: drums; John Ellis: tenor saxophone, bass
clarinet, Wurlitzer organ, melodica.