The album in three words? "Worth every penny."
The eight-string guitar guru Charlie Hunter has created a classic with Friends Seen and Unseen. John Ellis rotates between the tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet throughout, and the rhythmic backbone of the trio is Derrek Phillips on drums. From the opening notes of the album, it's apparent that the group is perfectly comfortable playing with one another. The mood is relaxed and playful, with each musician giving plenty of room to the others and "letting the music breathe."
Though rooted deeply in traditional jazz, the Charlie Hunter Trio ventures into some entertaining offshoots such as the swanky funk of "Lulu's Crawl." The meat of the album arrives in the middle with the trio of "Darkly," "Soweto's Where It's At," and "Shuffle."
John Ellis shines on flute in "Darkly," aided by Hunter and Phillips, who lay down an easy rhythm that allows Ellis to solo and generate intensity in the latter part of the jam before returning to the theme of the track. "Soweto's Where It's At" allows the listener to hear Hunter stretch out for the first time into some tasteful blues-inspired riffs, while maintaining a relaxed groove throughout. If there was a chance the album might have become too relaxed, that chance dissolved with the aggressive introduction of "Shuffle." Easily the most explosive track on the album, it sounds closer to a monster Galactic jam than something a jazz trio is capable of successfully pulling off. Hunter charges ahead on a sinister, recurring guitar riff while Phillips rolls over the top, mercilessly riding over the beat with an intensity reminiscent of Stanton Moore. Jazz traditionalists will enjoy "My Son the Hurricane," and "Moore's Alphabet" wraps things up nicely at the end.
There really are no soft spots on the album. Simply put, it is an outstanding jazz album... but more than that, it is something that aficionados will be able to appreciate while less-experienced listeners may have finally found a jazz album they enjoy listening to. This band makes jazz fun. While Hunter has been around for more than a decade, it appears he has finally hit full stride. His claim that "this is the best record I've ever made" is right on target. Great playing, great production, great album.
JamBase | Colorado
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