it used to be that, among jazz instrumentalists, guitarists were the
most tempted to sin. In the '30s, guitar had been a nearly superfluous
rhythm accompaniment in big bands. Charlie Christian introduced the
electric guitar and pickers would never again go unheard. Even so,
electricity was seen as a weakness, a vice, at least partly because
amplified saxophones and pianos were such ungainly creations. Generations
of jazz guitarists worked hard to sound as much as they could like loud
acoustic guitars -- superclean timbre, distinct note phrasing, no more
sustain than a piano pedal would allow. Still, slipping that proud plug
into that warm socket always left the urge to crash and clang and howl and
. . . but what would Barney Kessel think?
Charlie Hunter is a prime exponent of a generation finally free of
the old jazz-guitar hangups. He even plays a mutant axe, an eight-string
job reminiscent of Big Joe Williams' nine-stringer. Working out of
the San Francisco Bay area, Hunter spent genesis days with the caustic
political-rap outfit Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. After two albums with
a trio and a side project with the rugged cover band T.J. Kirk, Hunter has
expanded his outfit to a quartet for "Ready . . . Set . . . Shango!"
Hunter handles the bass lines on those extra lower strings. Tenor
saxophonist Dave Ellis has discussed and sparred with Hunter from the
start. The new hands are Calder Spanier on alto sax and drummer Scott
Amendola, pulled over from T.J. Kirk. Hunter doesn't feel that rock and
fusion are the only alternatives to quiet jazz guitar. So The Charlie
Hunter Quartet does not suggest Jimi Hendrix. Or Bill Frisell. Their sides
fit well with '60s Grant Green, but don't simply juice up hard bop, either.
And there's no acid jazzmospherics here. Hunter has indeed escaped
categorization, though calling the group's tunes "shangos" as he does is
going a riff too far.
The strong sense of curiosity Hunter's groups project is crucial.
It saves them from the reflexive classicism that hampers improvisers as
fluid and mellifluous as Wessel Anderson and Roy Hargrove. Those unfamiliar
with Hunter, especially pop fans, should approach his work sideways and
start with T.J. Kirk as well as the Charlie Hunter Trio's first album on
Prawn Song. The cover band specializes in the material of T(helonious
Monk), J(ames Brown) and (Rahsaan Roland) K(irk), three guys who know a
deadly lick and a slippery rhythm when they hear them. Each number is more
than catchy; they develop whole personalities -- the striver of Brown's
"Soul Power," the loquacious jiver of Kirk's "Freaks for the Festival," the
unbowed fighter of the Trio's "Fred's Life."
The same flair for the compression and punch of pop songcraft hit a
peak on the Trio's first Blue Note album, "Bing, Bing, Bing!" It kicked off
as strongly as any jazz album of last year with Hunter's incandescent wah
wah feature "Greasy Granny," and a poised, mournful reworking of Nirvana's
"Come as You Are." For this year's release, Hunter and company easily could
have reheated the same dish, but they moved on restlessly.
Hunter has said that the goal of "Ready ... Set ... Shango!" was to
update the soul-jazz groove of organ combos like Jimmy Smith and Big John
Patton's from 30 years ago and more. The key to enjoying those records
(popular when they came out, then scorned for decades as pandering) was to
get into the loose, rolling jams and savor the big tune hooks dipped in
backbeat hog fat. A few quick sniffles about broken hearts appear on
occasion, but worries and furious intensity were banished. At first, the
hooks decorating "Shango!" sound too discreet for such a mood. And it does
appear that the addition of Spanier on alto dilutes the discussion among
the solos, particularly on "Shango ... The Ballad" and "Dersu."
But the hooks on tracks like "Let's Get Medieval" and "Sutton" dig
in after a while; Hunter and the gang just slide in a little cooler
than before. They get every drip of soul-jazz ambience on "Teabaggin,"
where the horns' unison purrs behind Hunter's clipped solo provide an
understated swing new to the group. Hunter's deliberate lowballing of his
band's ambitions belies how much they plainly hear everything going on
around them in both jazz and pop. Passionate without blubbering, cool but
never arid, "Shango!" is the type of jazz album to play in the spirit of the
old organ combos -- not to show off your sophistication but to have fun
with brains. And, as the Hunter Quartet well knows, that shows off