Charlie Hunter is groove incarnate. Whether in his own groups, as a member of Garage a Trois, in duet with Bobby Previte, or reuniting with TJ Kirk (all this activity in the past year), this master of the eight-string guitar radiates an infectious joy that permeates his own playing as well as the musicianship of those around him. On much of his new album, Friends Seen and Unseen , Hunter sets the stage for his two partners, in just the latest example of this delightful dynamic.
Saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derek Phillips are holdovers from the quintet which last year recorded Hunter's Right Now Move. It's little surprise, then, on the opener, "One for the Kelpers," the threesome seem in no hurry to lock in with each other-when they do, the pleasure of the moment is no less sublime. Nor is the way the trio immediately stabilizes the rhythmic framework of "Freedom Tickler" as a foundation for Ellis' improvisational foray, Hunter's streamlined expansion upon those ideas, and Phillips' agile abbreviated drum break that leads seamlessly back into the main motif of the tune.
The camaraderie of the Charlie Hunter Trio gives the album a continuity that belies the diversity of styles it contains. Ellis whips out his flute on the (ironically?) titled "Darkly," and it's on this quick melodic progression that Hunter puts the deep notes of his custom-designed axe to best effect in contrasting to the airy sounds above. The guitarist takes a similarly earthy approach to the streamlined "Bonus Round," proof you can wield a light touch and elicit a deep response from both your listeners and your instrumental comrades. All three musicians take part in the snappy syncopation of "Moore's Alphabet," one of the most obvious examples of this group's natural affinity for improvisation, honed even more sharply by their experience playing together.
Generally eschewing the Lesley-speaker effect he's preferred for so long, Hunter uses a variety of tones and effects. For instance, the salty snarl of his guitar on "Lulu's Crawl" brings a series of dirty honks from the saxophonist-if the band were audition to accompany an exotic dancer, they'd get the job within the first two minutes of this randy rendition. Following the rootsy gospel mediation whimsically titled "Soweto's Where It's At," Hunter unleashes a circular series of wah-wah sounds on "Shuffle" while "Slow Blues" is just what it's titled, played with straightforward authority and confidence by the entire trio, in a manner that belies the players' comparative youth, fronted by the authentic flavor of Hunter's lead.
Fans of Charlie Hunter will no doubt find Friends Seen & Unseen another essential encounter. The recording could also function very well as the ideal introduction to this unusual and unusually accessible jazz musician: on its ten comparatively abbreviated tracks (in the four-to-seven minute range), the guitarist and his trio cover a lot of ground without an extraneous note or beat to be heard.
Personnel: Charlie Hunter - 8-string guitar;
John Ellis - Saxophones and flute;
Derrek Phillips - Percussion.