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Charlie Hunter Quartet | Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Mystic Theatre, Petaluma, CA | 12.13.01

Despite the rain, which normally compels most Californians to stay at home, a good-size crowd appeared Thursday night at the Mystic Theatre to catch these two fine jazz-esque ensembles. Any soul who braved the storm was rewarded with an excellent show. Even the treacherous drive home didn’t ruin our spirits; we were still flying high from the mind-bending, genre-defying music delivered by the Charlie Hunter Quartet and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

The Mystic is an intimate venue in the heart of downtown Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. This restored theater proved an ideal setting for the evening’s music: it felt less like a crowd watching performers on stage than a group of friends gathered to share an amazing musical experience.

Now I know why the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is a group to watch. Facing each other in triangle formation onstage, this trio – Brian Haas on Rhodes piano, Reed Mathis on bass and Jason Smart on drums – didn’t so much demand your attention as whisk it up and carry it along for the ride. Haas makes his piano resonate like a bass, Mathis makes his bass sound like the hybrid of a keyboard and slide guitar, and Smart miraculously keeps the rhythm during all this fine chaos. All while dishing out a contagious groove that kept the audience going during the entire set.

It seemed effortless when guest John Ellis (tenor sax, Charlie Hunter Quartet) joined the trio and plugged into their unique interpretation of jazz. You could detect modern jazz riffs emanating from the stage, as well as elements of psychdelia, funk and even electronica. When the trio threw out a number called “Thelonious Monk is my Grandmother,” it all somehow seemed to make sense. JFJO later invited their mentor Charlie Hunter (8-string guitar) and Chris Lovejoy (percussion, Charlie Hunter Quartet) onstage for a bit of improvisation. This ad-hoc quintet steered the audience toward a new bend in the evening’s energy, and the results proved that JFJO have learned quite a bit from their renowned mentor. That is, before tossing the music into as-yet unclaimed territory and making a sound distinctly their own.

As for Charlie Hunter, by the end of his set I wasn’t sure if I’d just witnessed a jazz performance, percussion ensemble or funk/soul outfit. And I wasn’t surprised. This versatile guitarist/bassist/keyboardist (listen to him play that custom-made 8-string guitar, and you’ll know what I mean) is comfortable treading new ground in whatever musical direction seems right at the time. His group’s evolution into a percussion quartet felt like a natural shift in the evening’s progression, and the set also featured such unexpected turns as a mesmerizing sax/cymbal duet with Ellis and drummer Stephen Chopek.

Guest vocalist Dean Bowman joined the group for a few soulful numbers. His throaty, Leon Thomas-like “yodel” intertwined with the sound from Ellis’s sax, and for a moment the music harkened back to a different age, while somehow seeming strangely new. Did I mention that the audience danced the entire set? The Charlie Hunter Quartet is definitely brain food for the avid jamband fan. And yet most of us on the floor of the Mystic Theater couldn’t help but move to these shapely grooves, particularly the Latin-sounding cover that graced the end of the set and the sweeping, soulful encore, with Bowman on vocals once again.

Apparently, some players in the Charlie Hunter Quartet are classically trained musicians, and all have performed with numerous young lions in contemporary jazz. Needless to say, they are exceptional musicians who can deliver complex rhythms while speaking a language that’s comprehensible to a wide audience, even those who might not consider themselves jazz lovers. Though Hunter and company never said a word to the audience until the end of the set, it felt as if they’d been in touch with us throughout the entire evening.

Margaret Pitcher
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 12/17/01]

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