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When you check out one of Charlie Hunter’s live shows, it’s easy to be captivated by his custom 8-string guitar, one which allows him to play bass and the high range at the same time. In his career, though, Charlie has surrounded himself with different lineups of musicians that do more than just complement what he does. For the last couple of years, Charlie’s been touring with Stephen Chopek on drums and Chris Lovejoy on percussion (with John Ellis on sax for a good bit as well). I’ve admired how Hunter steps back, allowing Chris and Steve to do their own thing, whether it be in the absolute forefront or coming out as a strong position of phrasing within the group’s effort.
Particularly, I remember standing in the Bowery Ballroom right in front of Chopek as he artfully railed on his pared down kit of snare, bass, bell and cymbal. As far as tone goes, he achieves substantial textures of force much the same way as Alan Evans of Soulive, who used to take the minimal approach to kit construction as Steve still does. Both drummers produce magnificence which you can feel, but you can also see, as Chopek towels himself off at various points during a show. One other commonality between Evans and Chopek is the humble humanity they give off in person which stands as perfect irony for their bombastic natures when the sticks are in their hands.
Chris Lovejoy serves the rhythm of Hunter’s current trio on congas and “metal stuff” very well and fleshes out a more global feel to the beats as well as jazz timing that ranges from smooth to furiously random. The balance of contradiction and similarity that Chris and Steve produce when playing together is nicely represented on the cover art of their side project album called Brain Trust. The bottom halves of two mannequins, one black one white, appear with one in a pseudo-sitting position and one upright which mirrors the physical position each is in when they play.
"And... Boogie" opens the album along the lines of what the title implies to me. As a movie buff, I’m thinking “and... action” like preparation is over and now it’s time to jump off the start. The pump of Chopek’s bass contrasts the staccato of his stick work along the rims, leaving room in the middle for Lovejoy’s sharp skin rap. This opener establishes the project’s identity which can be felt in most of the pieces on Brain Trust which I would describe as rhythmically infectious for the body without going near the dance beat fashion that’s so prevalent right now.
The first of three guests, illyB of Medeski, Martin & Wood, appears on track two and brings some of his border smashing repertoire of percussive toys with him. “Ming Na” begins languidly and automatically brought me to a porch overlooking some harbor in East Asia. The camera of the music’s eye takes in the building scene as the song progresses and gradually speeds it’s expression of that scene so that the lights, characters and movements reach multiple times reality’s usual pace. Dancers of all kinds appear, stirred by the bell work and rounded inner reachings. “Ming Na” is the transport of an all night drum circle which finishes in the morning drip of the following track called “Black Angus.” The party of the previous night may be over but the familiar comforts of the everyday that always follow takes you through this track which is a comfortable breather that sets up for the killer coming ‘round the corner.
Having established the first third of the album through percussion, Chopek & Lovejoy bring Charlie Hunter into track 4, Knock Yer Mouth Loose." (Stream It!) Another very apt song title. Like “And... Boogie,” “KYML” opens with the rim work, bass and conga but adds in some metallic tones and tambourine which drew me in for the first minute. After the first few seconds of minute two, Hunter comes in on bass guitar and Fender Rhodes. The bass is as nasty as morning breath but it won’t make you wince although your lips may curl. The Fender blankets a dream that floats around what all three musicians put into the piece and then the song really takes off with Hunter’s 12 string business. When I’m going to write about a CD, I like to listen to it straight through for the first time but I had to repeat this track a couple of times before I moved on.
I’m very fond of zagging direction so the abrupt shift that takes the listener into “Zithers Brothers” hit me just right. A zither is a stringed instrument similar in structure to a hammer dulcimer which has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Like the guitar-harp work that Rob Mastrianni of Next Tribe employs, the zither has a high-pitched sharpness guaranteed to tickle the inner ear. Around the zithers, which both Chris and Steve play, Chopek successively builds a stream of vocal repetition including the phrase, “time is.” It’s something you might expect out of the musical accompaniment in performance art which deeply appeals to my taste for the non-conventional.
Tracks 6 & 7 (“Jimmy the Zipper” and “Ultrasonic,” respectively), do further work on two halves of the masonry in their identity’s foundation. “Jimmy” sticks to the skins and reminded me automatically of some of the music from the movie Coming to America. “Ultrasonic” explores more of the cymbals and other instruments which take us through the more tinny area of their context. It also explores wood bound tones and reaches sections of cacophony reminiscent of the randomness in “Zithers Brothers.”
“Freak Fest” seems to me the thesis of the album as it brings together a lot of the styles and instruments Chopek & Lovejoy work through in the first seven songs of Brain Trust. It quickly establishes a sway from the knees upward which works to full boogie in time for Danton Boller of Jazz Mandolin Project to come in on upright bass. Boller fuels the movement perfectly alongside the drums and percussion, picking up momentum with every cycle so solidly that the distortion thrown in the mix spreads out the piece instead of pulling it apart.
“A Knowledgeable Man” closes the album sounding like a processional of Asia’s southern shelf at it’s outset. There are no lumbering elephants, though. The final track takes us out with expansive cymbal splashes and delicate marimba while the rolling skin play gradually takes you to the close.
Whether you’re someone who digs on drum circles, stuff like Widespread Panic’s “Drums” sections in live shows, jazz, worldbeat or just wish to be stimulated by the creations of two very talented and open minded artists, Brain Trust will take you where you want to be. The beats will allow you to enter their world in the first listen but the breadth of travels taken throughout will have you uncovering more of them and yourself each time you pop the play button on Brain Trust thereafter.
You can order a copy of the album and hopefully catch some of the pieces on Charlie Hunter tour, currently going on. Chris Lovejoy & Stephen Chopek are on the road with Charlie and John Ellis, including various special guest vocalists, including Norah Jones. They join up with Robert Walter’s 20th Congress for the rest of the tour which takes them through November 16th at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland.
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Let Us Live in Peace
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