Robert Walter’s 20th Congress & Charlie Hunter
10.28.01 | Bowery Ballroom | NYC
On the eve of the Yankees' second loss in this integral World Series, those not interested in baseball for the night were treated to two shots of the soul boogie aphrodisiac. The Bowery Ballroom was the place for the boogaloo stylings of Robert Walter's 20th Congress and Charlie Hunter’s bag of percussive candy for all six human senses (Yes, in the case of Charlie Hunter’s most recent project there are six human senses, in order to find the sixth you must attend a show). A few special guests graced the stage on this night of soul education, proving that the West Coast brotherhood of the groove movement still has plenty up its sleeve.
On this night, even in the absence of one, great things can still happen. As bassist Chris Stillwell of Greyboy Allstars fame and current member of Robert Walter’s 20th Congress was unable to perform with his bandmates on Sunday night due to the need of his of family, the 20th Congress called up an old friend. Acid jazz G-dfather Melvin Sparks joined the Congress for a solo-heavy eight-song set, coming to the aid of Robert’s left hand with that unmistakable Melvin feel, recognized by the many who were rushing up the stairs to see if their ears were telling them the truth.
An apt title for this set might have been The Foundations of the Groove 101, An Introduction, as the 20th Congress dropped tunes out of the books of Miles, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Reuben Wilson and a Melvin original, “The Stinker,” that had classic boogaloo written all over it. The Miles composition “Jan Jan” was played in classic breakbeat style with drummer George Sluppick holding it down as Robert, Melvin and Congress sax-man Cochemea Gastelum took blazing solos, often trading licks on the spot. Reuben Wilson’s “Orange Peel” was the time for Melvin to shine. During his solo he tickled classic lines of jazz greats as he ventured from the head of “Straight, No Chaser” to “Oleo” to Charlie Parker’s “Hornothology” and even throwing in one of his favorites, the Flintstones theme. A little education for the masses. A couple Robert Walter original compositions including a Ray Charles-like blues number suddenly erupting into a driving Southern Pentecostal hoedown to end the set had much of the Bowery feeling their demons had been exorcised and all pain was washed away. I think I even heard a little “Lovelight” in there.
The Congress excelled dynamically, honoring the soloist with a clean canvas to work with and tight percussion breaks allowed conga player Chuck Prada to do his thing. Melvin, of course, was just Melvin and that is all you ever want him to be, especially when he has that smile on ‘cause you know it is time to get down. At the setbreak all the Steely Dan fans got treated to the Grammy Winning Two Against Nature as Charlie Hunter and his band set up for our second dose. Could that be a Wurlitzer on stage?
The room was a bit more filled with eager faces as Charlie, saxophonist John Ellis and the pulsation brothers Steven Chopek and Chris Lovejoy took the stage. Beginning with the token Charlie Hunter shuffle, taking it into double time and then into a Latin bit, the band dropped into “Rhythm Music Rides Again” with the supreme proficiency that these cats have a reputation for. Lovejoy and Chopek, always locked, laid down the beats as a foundation for both Charlie and Ellis to solo. Moving it into a little straight-funk featuring some great shaker work by both Lovejoy and Chopek, the band hit “Mitch Better Have My Bunny” and “Run For It,” two more Analog selections. The latter showed some displeasure on the face of Chris Lovejoy as his bell tones were not to his liking. Choosing the psychedelic path for one number Charlie called “La Gringo Plana,” tastes of Bar Mitzvah cocktail hours past entwined with some flamenco soloing by Charlie led into yet another tight percussion section and then into a slow blues as Charlie showed his best SRV.
The ballroom audience received the invitation given to sensual songstress Norah Jones to join the band for a few tunes in adulation as the shy Texan took seat behind the aforementioned Wurlitzer. At first note, the velvet and grace of Norah Jones captured the atmosphere of the room and held it softly, her voice a veil of passion and solace. The band, as moved by her presence as they were the first time they met her, followed her lead and perfectly complimented the smooth R&B electric piano stylings reminiscent of soul drenched Bill Withers records. Performing the Nick Drake penned and Analog recorded “Day is Done” along with guest shekere player Jans Engber, the band upped the tempo a half-step from that of the original album recording, lighting it with more of a percussive feel. Norah’s versatility as a leader and as an accompanist was illustrated throughout the rest of the set as she sang backup to Engber on “Mighty Mighty” while she held down the grooves with the band, tickling the Wurlitzer and adding her licks into the soul mix. Following with yet another Jones and Engber collaboration, “I Say it Because I Love Having You Around,” Miss Jones once again found that Bill Withers West Virginia R&B flavor while Charlie took quite a soulful guitar solo over her silky chord changes. Both as a vocalist and an instrumentalist, Norah added brilliant dimensions to the setting founded on the excellence of musicianship provided by Hunter, Chopek, Lovejoy and Ellis. As the finale to the evening, the band performed the traditional “Old Country,” once recorded by Nancy Wilson. The quintet spun with it an Afro-Cuban rhythm, giving Lovejoy the opportunity to get down while Charlie held a seemingly impossible montuno with Ellis adding the perfect tenor compliments. As diversified a selection as Charlie’s many projects.
This assemblage, I feel, is as progressive as any so far including the Natty Dread work. As retrospective as it feels, for Charlie Hunter, a man enveloped in instrumentalism, this album is a reach toward feeling and emotion, two attributes sparsely found on his other recordings. Looking back may just have provided Charlie Hunter with a new insight into his musical quest. Well, at least for this month anyway.
JamBase | NYC
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