Charlie Hunter Trio :: 12.13.04 :: Kuumbwa Jazz Center :: Santa Cruz, CA
Jam, as a musical genre is the great, grand-offspring of jazz. Though there are several jazz aficionados who might consider it more of a bastard child, there is no denying that without the improvisational and innovative genius of past jazz musicians, there would
be no modern day jamband. When eight string guitar master Charlie Hunter brought his trio (John Ellis sax/clarinet/Wurlitzer and Derek Phillips drums) to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center I had to ask him if it ever bothered him to be labeled a "jamband." "You can call us whatever the fuck you want," he responded, "as long as it puts people's asses in the seats." Aptly put.
Tucked away in a slightly hidden section of downtown Santa Cruz, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center has been described by Branford Marsalis as "the best jazz club in the nation, after the Village Vanguard." That's a ringing endorsement, especially when you consider that there are longtime Santa Cruz residents who don't even know that the place exists, and it has been in the same spot for almost 30 years. The Kuumbwa (a Swahili word meaning spontaneous creation of art) is a nonprofit, community-supported venue that seats a mere 200 people. It is that community support combined with the small, intimate space that creates a pervading sense that the musicians, audience members and venue staff are all in it together. That camaraderie between performer and rapt participant consistently creates musical excellence, often times bordering on magic. When CHT took the stage for two sold out shows to 400 riveted asses, it was no exception.
The performance marked the sixth time that Hunter has brought some permutation of his performance armada to the Kuumbwa since 1999. Since he has been such a frequent visitor, I asked him if it ever got old. "Not at all," he said. "It's always fresh here. I never feel like I'm strip-mining it. I actually wish there were more places like this [nonprofit and community based] to play. It's definitely more enjoyable for us as musicians." After reading Dan Ouellette's piece in Downbeat ("Ten Years of the Trio: Friends Seen and Unseen") I knew that the reason Charlie had to disband his quintet was economic. It became prohibitively expensive to tour with the larger configurations. "If you were financially able to do so," I asked, "would you add other musicians to this trio?" He answered with an emphatic "no." "The vibe with this band is so right, that I don't want to do anything to change it." As soon as the band took the stage that night, I understood what he meant.
Friends Seen and Unseen, the name of their latest studio release, is also a fitting description of how they play. There was an obvious sense of ease and comfort with each other that produced a level of musical maturity that I hadn't witnessed before. Their implicit understanding of each other produced a groove so thick it was palpable. The interplay between Phillips and Hunter was almost hypnotic. Phillips is like the clownfish to Hunter's sea anemone; it's a symbiotic relationship that creates the foundation for all improvisation. "One For the Kelpers," a track from the new album that seems to play heavily in their live rotation, was like a slow expedition through a jungle of percussive skill and eight-string mastery. On "Lulu's Crawl," also a track from the new album, Phillips' rhythms were slow and syncopated, complementing Hunter's drawling bass lines. Throughout the night, the interaction between drums and guitar was so exceptionally tight, that in spite of his skill, there were times when Ellis' playing seemed superfluous. Ellis shined most brightly on the bass clarinet, adding to the deep, thick complex tone of both shows. One of the best improvisational moments of the night came during the second set when Hunter abandoned his guitar for a tambourine, Ellis played a wooden oblong, oval shaped whistle and Phillips took up the maracas, eventually switching to the cowbell.
The true highlight of the evening came when Hunter played solo, debuting a brand new acoustic eight-string made by local guitar guru Jeff Traugott, who was seated in the second row. Not only was the instrument a physical piece of art, but its tone was clear and evocative, providing the perfect vehicle to showcase Hunter's impressive skill. What was truly special about the acoustic was that it was brand new to all of us, instrumentalist included. I liken it to watching a baby taking its first steps. At first he was cautious, yet committed. With each progressing chord, it went from being a new guitar, to distinctly Charlie's guitar. He took ownership of every note, with growing confidence and dexterity. The audience, including Phillips and Ellis, were silent in rapt concentration, listening to the musical evolution that was unfolding. It felt as if we were witnessing the birth of something new and rife with possibilities. It was one of those moments that had me in awe, again exemplifying the way that the Kuumbwa brings out the superlative in performers. The stage commands excellence from those who stand on it, and Charlie delivered, ten-fold. By the thunderous applause from the audience when he finished, I imagine I was not alone in that sentiment.
When it was all said and done, all played and performed, it was clear that as always, the Charlie Hunter Trio had come from a place of musical authenticity and creative integrity, with a skillful combination of familiarity and innovation. Call it whatever the fuck you want, just get your ass in the seat.
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