Charlie Hunter Trio: Live at The Magic Bag

Mark Sabbatini By

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He puts on a good sonic show here, layering organ textures on top of uptempo blues riffs in a fashion that makes it hard to imagine less than a quartet at work.
This being America, we'll blame guitarist Charlie Hunter's talent and generosity. The person who labored to make this recording is merely the victim of unfair competition.

Hunter is among a handful of top-tier jazz musicians who allows audience taping of his shows for distribution and even goes a step further by offering three albums' worth of material at his official web site. As such, dozens of concerts from the past decade are free for the grabbing and this show—reviewed because it's the first posting of a 2005 tour—may be most useful for comparison in that larger context.

The show is from Hunter's guitar/sax/drums trio and focuses largely on rock/blues stylings from earlier days. The performance is solid, but poor sound quality and other glitches make this more useful as a preview for those interested in upcoming concerts or for students of his music than for general listening.

The reason is simple enough: This April 14, 2005, performance at The Magic Bag in Ferndale, MI, was recorded by Aaron Israels about 10 feet from the stage, and sounds as hollow and muddy as one would expect at that distance. The opening minute is also missing and there's occasional distortion and clipping. There are worse shows—including some with acoustics so sharp they grate and audiences doing more talking than listening—but enough better ones to limit the appeal of this one.

Hunter's trademark is a custom eight-string guitar that allows him to emulate bass and organ sections, and most of his best work over the years has been in the trio format where he has more space to contribute. He puts on a good sonic show here, layering organ textures on top of up-tempo blues riffs in a fashion that makes it hard to imagine less than a quartet at work. The versatility also enhances the backdrop for saxophonist John Ellis, a constant and lively presence on such tracks.

But while a fun listen on a surface level, many of the early tracks also lack the sophistication and innovation of Hunter's trio at their best—any number of guitarists can liven up an audience with Alice Cooper's "It's Much Too Late, for instance. Better playing and less showmanship comes on the third track, a 20-minute marathon I'll call "John Henry due to Hunter's imbedding it in his solo (the show's setlist was not posted and I'll admit an inability to name all of his tunes by ear). He and Ellis blend '40s-like swing acoustics into cutting-edge textures and ideas that build from ballad simplicity to muted rumble, always maintaining a minimalist touch that showcases both players well.

Things get a lot better and grittier on the second set. An eight-minute freeform/rock piece (number eight in the overall playlist) wstarts as a straight four-beat but doesn't stay there long, dipping into meditative, folk, chamber and other bins at a rather abrupt pace. It's a diverse showpiece of the interactive and sonic improvisations the trio has developed. And since this is purely an auditory experience and the show is billed as a trio, I'm still trying to figure out where Hunter is pulling the electronic keyboard sounds heard here and on a few other pieces. The closing three songs, including two encores, also stand among the evening's highlights as drummer Derrek Phillips gets more complex with his rhythms and Hunter and Ellis get looser with their jams.

To call this a bad download because of its audio quality seems unfair, since there's no desire to discourage the efforts of Israels and others like him who make them available. Fans who collect these obviously will appreciate it, but those new to Hunter and concert downloads will likely be more satisfied starting elsewhere. A July 5, 2002, concert at The Knitting Factory is the most popular at the Internet Archive, with good reviews from listeners for its audio quality, although it's only available as a 755MB Shorten file. For those seeking a more compact/compatible MP3 show, a May 22nd, 2004, performance at the Forward Hall is recommended. Those wanting to browse further can find nearly 100 shows by Hunter and the spin-off group Garage A Trois at the archive, plus many other files at the sites for various individual members of the groups.

Visit Charlie Hunter on the web.

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