jazz covers of pop tunes usually fall into one of two categories -- those that dilute the original songs, and those that, because the performer has injected a new sensibility into the material, make the listener feel as though they're hearing it for the first time. After a listen to the Charlie Hunter Quartet's song-for-song rendering of Bob Marley's classic album "Natty Dread," it's clear that the latter category has a new entry.
Those expecting to hear instrumental covers of Marley classics or a reggae-tinge to Hunter's normal blend of bebop, '60s organ combos and funk will be disappointed. Almost every tune here is reworked so completely that it's barely recognizable, and the basic accented upbeat pulse of reggae is noticeably absent. Instead, the album treats us to dramatic reinterpretations of each tune, performances that, at their best, make us stop and realize what great songs these are in the first place.
And that's no easy task: Marley long ago made the jump from revolutionary icon to dorm-room-wall-hanging staple, his music becoming nearly as familiar and overplayed as "Stairway to Heaven" or "Abbey Road." So it's no small feat to attack these tunes with fresh ears, and it makes the album all the more impressive for the effort. Perhaps not surprisingly, the album's best moments come in the tunes that bear almost no resemblance to their original versions: the thrilling Latin workout of "Dem Belly Full (But We Hungry)," the backbeat-driven shuffle of "Lively Up Yourself," the lush harmonies of "Revolution" and the hauntingly spare "No Woman, No Cry" -- which here dresses the Hammond organ-drenched original in a gorgeous Bill Frisell-meets-Ry Cooder solo guitar.
In stark contrast to some of Hunter's previous outings, which sometimes emphasized impressive technique (yes, that guitar and bass you're hearing is the simultaneous work of one guy) at the expense of innovation and variety, the playing on "Natty Dread" seethes with a far-reaching expansiveness. Alto saxophonist Calder Spaniel steps out on "Lively up Yourself," tenor man Kenny Brooks turns in a fiery solo on "So Jah Seh," Scott Amendola's drumming is creative throughout and the leader's guitar somehow occasionally manages to sound like Charlie Christian playing John Patton's organ.
Although it might seem that an album's worth of Marley tunes is merely a clever marketing ploy to bring Hunter the wider audience he no doubt deserves, there's clearly something else at work here. What Hunter seems to be after is a new definition of the jazz standard -- that bible of the jazz repertoire handed down from 1940s beboppers to today's conservatory student. Since the original jazz standards were nothing more than popular songs of the time reworked with a swinging rhythm and more complicated chord progressions, this makes some sense. After all, when was the last time you heard "All the Things You Are" on hit radio? That this move comes off so well may be because Hunter's no stranger to this terrain -- listen to his rendition of Nirvana's "Come As You Are" off 1995's "Bing Bing Bing" for another taste. We all knew Kurt Cobain could write a screaming guitar hook, but who knew his tunes made good jazz charts as well?
Whatever the motivation -- and even if it's too
much to hope that Hunter and "Natty Dread" will be
leading the charge toward an updated land of jazz
swing -- the Berkeley guitarist's tip of the hat to
the Jamaican legend comes off an unqualified
success. Digging into his own record collection,
Hunter has produced his best album yet.
Whatever the motivation -- and even if it's too much to hope that Hunter and "Natty Dread" will be leading the charge toward an updated land of jazz swing -- the Berkeley guitarist's tip of the hat to the Jamaican legend comes off an unqualified success. Digging into his own record collection, Hunter has produced his best album yet.