The Charlie Hunter Trio Live at Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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If this visit to Vermont served a particular purpose, it was to reaffirm Charlie Hunter's versatility.
The Charlie Hunter Trio
Higher Ground
South Burlington Vermont
Februaary 26, 2006

Guitar hero worship takes many forms and that which comfortably filled the partially seated, semi-cabaret setting of Higher Ground this Sunday evening was as astute as it was attentive. It was reverential too, but no so much so it affected the down to earth musicians on the stage: The Charlie Hunter Trio don't look down on their audience. They do treat them with respect, however, engaging in the sort of low-key interplay that bespeaks their tenure together (Hunter has played with John Ellis and Derrek Phillips in one form or another for upwards of five years) not to mention the pleasure they take in in one another's musicianship.

Early on the atmosphere was thick and funky, no obvious nod to New Orleans except in the leisurely pace with which The Trio got themselves warmed up. Announced as something of a album release party during set break, the group played virtually all the newly-released Copperopolis album but, telling for a group as anti-showbiz as Hunter and Co., made no overt overtures to promote the CD (Charlie himself mentioned CD's for sale only as an side in bidding the audience adieu at night's end).

Accordingly, the threesome played with songs like "Cueball Bobbin' not content just to try and replicate the studio recording or even the arrangement. It's a necessity to enjoy the drama of musicians working together in ways both large and small to deeply enjoy The Charlie Hunter Trio: they make no grand gestures to each other or the audience as they dig into grooves and explore melodies. The short nod of the head and the exchange of a gracious smile as often to their audience as each other at the end of a number speaks volumes.

Humble stage presence to be sure, but then Charlie is nothing if not unpretentious, and consequently demands high standards of his comrades as of himself. If this visit to Vermont proved anything, it's Hunter's versatility and that's even apart from his seamless transitions from guitar to bass work on his guitar, the lower registers of which might've been more clear in the mix had he been using an eight-string instrument rather than a seven).

Copperopolis has been touted as a rockin' outing, but it's more of a piece with previous Hunter groovejazz the more you hear tracks like "Swamba Redux. Especially during the second set in South Burlington, however, that familiar phased sound of guitar gave way to caustic tones that in turn became softly fluid, only to be transformed again into the corrosive likes politely termed shredding.

Not suprisingly, Hunter's two trio-mates are almost as versatile as their leader. At one point early in the evening, Derrek Phillips played percussion and his traps at the same time, while John Ellis toodled away on the melodica and electric piano simultaneously. All this while Hunter, as is his wont, effortlessly alternated quick guitar runs and sumptuous bass rhythms.

Tasteful musicianship doesn't usually allow for true adventure, but for The Charlie Hunter Trio, it makes for a group dynamic allowing all three their share of the spotlight. Ellis plays less saxophone than in the past, but his presence on the horn then becomes more distinctive and he brings the same ingenuity to the melodica. For his part, drummer Phillips effortlessly generates rhythm hard and heavy or light and lilting: his continual eye contact with the leader of the band might seem to leave Ellis behind except the latter seems perfectly content to take an complementary role, and enjoys the sight and sound of his two cohorts rattling around in search of the right pattern to play.

The Charlie Hunter Trio don't take off on extended flights of improvisation, their attention span devoted to the sequencing of an entire evening. The second set was decidedly more upbeat than the first, but contained its own share of free playing in search of a groove/melody; you might argue the Hunter Trio would benefit from some more structure to the live presentations, but that approach, especially for his devoted audience, might put a damper on the spontaneous charm of the evenings even it would provide shape structure and a bona fide pay-off, aka climax, to the evening.

The hard blues Charlie Hunter has only hinted at in passing on his last two studio works took the form of what might've been a crowd-pleasing set closer for another band: while the purist might criticize this interlude for being exactly the conventional likes of which Hunter avoids, it's also true it made for clear comparison to his idiosyncratic style, And in practical terms, for the goateed California hipster, it was merely prelude to a dreamy benediction ("Blue Sock ) that might function as encore in the hands (and head) or a larger ego.


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