Charlie Hunter Trio: Copperopolis (2006)
No disrespect to Friends Seen and Unseen, but Hunter's new trio disc pretty much leaves it in the shade. While there's no change in personnelthe group still consists of Hunter, tenor saxman John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillipsthere have been considerable changes within that lineup. Ellis still plays tenor and a bit of bass clarinet in the group, but now he's playing lots of Wurlitzer and melodica, often combined with tenor in the same song. It's hard to overstate the expansion of the group sound this createsa saxophone can't really comp alongside a guitar. Ellis' Wurlitzer can, and does, which provides another layer of event to the music. (Previously, even with Hunter's vaunted simultaneous-bass line eight-string playing, things sometimes got a little thin in terms of group activity when Ellis laid out.)
Everything the group's doing now can be heard in the album opener, "Cueball Bobbin'. Copperopolis is being heralded as Hunter's "rock album, and the intro, with Hunter's electric wail, Ellis' Wurli skronk and almost-violent Phillips drumrolls could vibrate a sport arena pretty effectivelybut here and everywhere else on the CD, the bombast is strained through Hunter's playful bong-hit affability and his total lack of pomposity. The rest of "Cueball Bobbin' consists a hard rock guitar riff accompanied by Ellis' Wurli comp groove over Phillips' stutter-step drum bludgeon; this part pivots around a time-stopping unison guitar/melodica phrase that somehow fuels the tune's momentum while it momentarily stops the time. Hunter's guitar solo here has plenty of liquid shred, but it's no more engaging than Phillips' brawny wallop, locked in as it is to Hunter's own bass line. Hunter seems to have intentionally reduced the complexity of his bass parts, eschewing virtuosity in favor of maximum deep-pocket fusion with Phillips.
There's not too much sax on that one, but barnburners like "Swamba Redux" and "Blue Sock" feature Ellis' snaky, almost alto-ish tenor to stunning effect. "The Pursuit Package is a two-minute John-Bonham-Meets-Link-Wray teaser that crashes into the goofily lilting "A Street Fight Could Break Out, with near-perfect Wurlitzer comping that slots between the spaces in Hunter's lines, all over a groove made somehow more menacing by its sheer slowness. Ellis' melodica solo steals the show , though.
The trio's interplay and chemistry here seem worlds beyond the same band recorded on Friends Seen and Unseen two years ago. That makes this a very good time to get out and see this band play.
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Track Listing: Cueball Bobbin'; Frontman; Swamba Redux; Copperopolis; Blue Sock; The Pursuit Package; A Street Fight Could Break Out; Drop the Rock; Think of One.
Personnel: Charlie Hunter: eight-string guitar; Derrek Phillips: drums; John Ellis: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, Wurlitzer organ, melodica.