Of the sessions with his trio that produced Copperopolis, guitar wunderkind Charlie Hunter says, "I was just feeling rocky I guess. Indeed, the first few seconds are the sound of the three players marshalling their collective strength, leader/guitarist at the fore, riffing and rocking to beat the band. In the midst of the shredding, however, the quirky character of the group and its leader remains evident, eventually superseding that unusually violent attack as the nine tracks continue to unfold.
Yet "Curveball Bobbin'' doesn't exactly present a false impression. "Frontman solidifies a marked change of pace for Charlie Hunter's trio, at least in part, with the prominence of John Ellis on Wurlitzer. It also best illustrates the size of the sound as captured by co-producers Charlie Hunter and Chris Finney and retained through the expert mastering of Greg Calbi.
Live performance in 2005 revealed some reduction in the use of Ellis' sax in favor of keyboards and the melodica that opens "Swamba Redux, but Ellis then reasserts himself via the quirky logic of his horn. Meanwhile Hunter marries the lower registers of his eight-string guitar to the hard-swinging drums of Derrek Phillips; given how limber the drummer is, it's altogether remarkable how much ballast he provides in this small combo setting.
The genuine blues feel that came and went so quickly on the group's last album, Friends Seen and Unseen, resurfaces on the title song and, again, I wish it lasted longer before giving way to the familiar bounce of "Blue Sock. Hunter's comparatively quiet ruminations on guitar are echoed in the contemplative saxophone solo of John Ellis, all of which is set in a context of funky fun.
The trio shifts gears sharply when Phillips drops a heavy downbeat to introduce the brevity that is "The Pursuit Package, which ends almost as abruptly as it begins. Next are the two most intricate pieces on the disc, "Drop the Rock and "Think of One. Having played together for five years now, Hunter, Phillips and Ellis have attained that rare intuitive rapport that allows them to think and play as if of one mind. Accordingly, the segues are seamless from guitar to percussion, sax and keyboards on these two cuts. The threesome embroider a music that invites the listener to listen hard and figure out exactly how they do it. Tricky to be sure, but free of pretension and far from lightweight, there's a palpable mystery to the sound of this trio that's rooted squarely in their camaraderie.
Ultimately Copperopolis is both more and less than it initially seems. It stretches Charlie Hunter and his two bandmates in directions they've only hinted at in the past. Nevertheless, it remains of a piece with both the leader's work throughout his career and with this particular group.
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Personnel: Charlie Hunter: eight-string guitar; Derrek Phillips: drums; John Ellis: tenor saxophone, bass
clarinet, Wurlitzer organ, melodica.