Jazz-funk guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter played shows at Oakland’s and San Francisco’s Yoshi’s back in December and for anybody who loves modern jazz-groove they were not to be missed. Though his albums are fantastic in their own right, Hunter’s one of those performers you have to experience live to really appreciate. You have to see his guitar/bass work to believe it (that’s right, both at the same time), and his music also has a certain open, gregarious quality, a joie de vivre that help to make his concerts such extraordinary pleasures. Furthermore I think that his latest album, Baboon Strength (2008), and the musical divergence it represents for Hunter, is a development of real note; a truly original take on the genre that plays perfectly to Hunter’s strengths.
There was a sense of confident, measured spontaneity to the whole trio, which includes the fluid Erik Deutsch on keys and Tony Mason on drums. Mason, a new and very welcome addition to Hunter’s constantly shifting band of accompanists, brings a slower, more controlled approach than Hunter’s previous drummer Simon Lott. Mason’s rhythms are complex and his playing is impressive, but he’s no show-off. He only really let loose a couple of times, but when he did he’d just knocked the breath out of you. Mason and Hunter bounced off each other the whole night, Hunter’s adept base-work and quasi-vocal guitar finding in Mason at once the perfect foundation and a worthy rhythmic sparring partner.
Hunter has explored many different styles and variations on the groove genre throughout his long career, from avant garde jam-band á la Medeski, Martin & Wood in Steady Groovin’ (2005), to funky nouveau jazz in Mistico (2007). He’s widely considered the authority on 7- and 8-string guitars, and is soon to be included in Downbeat Magazine as one of the 75 most influential jazz and blues guitarists of all time. He plays on custom-made instruments, the major modification this time around being three bass strings in place of the standard D-, G- and B-strings. Hunter exploits this modification with such skill that he effectively doubles as a bassist, but crucially, and amazingly, does so without sacrificing even a modicum of interest in the main guitar. It sounds great in recording, but unless you keep reminding yourself it’s easy to forget that there aren’t at least two more people playing. That’s why seeing him live is so important. It really is just three people up there making all that noise.
Also unique to Hunter, his upper-string guitar effectively provides most of the trio’s melodies, similar to a band’s singer; expressive, wide-ranging, not too flashy. While Hunter has played with Erik Deutsch before (on the jazzier Mistico (2007)), newcomer Tony Mason’s slow, powerfully elaborate rhythms offer the chance for a whole new musical avenue. As opposed to the traditional, showier ’70s groove Hunter usually plays, his Baboon Strength songs seem more influenced by ‘80s soul and pop, and Mason is a big reason that it works so well.
In The Commitments, a great movie about an Irish soul cover band, a character describes the difference between jazz, which he colorfully describes as “musical wanking,” and soul, which is more emotional, which has corners. This is an apt way to think of Hunter’s Baboon Strength tracks — it’s still groove, so it’s music that you can dance to, but it’s also somehow related to soul, music that you could almost imagine someone singing to.
These days jazz trios have become practically synonymous with experimentalism and digressive solos. Hunter’s new trio breaks that mold, focusing instead on expressivity and the attention to detail that slower songs inherently require. When the members do take a few moments to solo it is that much more rewarding. In this case less truly becomes more.
While Hunter’s shows might be harder to get into than a lot of musicians, Baboon Strength is a great album and is available online and in stores. I highly recommend it.
[This review originally appeared on MyCrazyMusicBlog, and cannot be reproduced without permission. Thank you]