Charlie Hunter must have extra fingers. How else to explain the digital independence and jaw-dropping discipline required to master his unique eight-string axe? The only logical analogy comes from the custom Novax guitar itself. The instrument’s signal is split: bass output into the bass amp and guitar output into the guitar amp. So too must Hunter’s fingers split themselves and work asunder. You can almost hear the cliche scream for recognition, but it really is easier said than done.
The Charlie Hunter Quartet chose New York City’s chic TriBeCa section to camp out at the intimate No Moore for a three-week residency. The venue was perfect (think mini-Irving Plaza) for Hunter to stretch out some new material and polish a few tracks from his latest, self-titled album.
Cited as chameleonic, Hunter never plays the same gig twice. The same is true for his backing mates each tour. Constantly switching the players around, Hunter invariably achieves a fresh perspective on always-new material. Rather than simply changing his colors, though, Hunter has become a snake shedding its skin; outgrowing and casting away the old in favor of shiny new scales. This night was no different as Hunter aligned himself with the highly capable trio of John Ellis on tenor saxophone and the two-headed drum and percussion monster of Stephen Chopek and Chris Lovejoy.
From the moment they hit the floor-level stage, the band’s energy threatened to burst the roof and whip the 200-strong audience into a delirious frenzy. The drummers sat parallel and directly across from each other and Ellis served watch from behind as Hunter plunked himself on a simple black chair in the middle.
Settling into an upbeat and heavy groove, all four players bobbed their heads in syncopation. Growing stronger with each measure, the hard-working jam was complimented by Hunter’s wild and downright scary facial expressions. Resembling the grit teeth of a Blue Meanie and winking gape of Popeye, it is apparent that rubber-faced Jim Carrey has nothing on this guy.
Climbing in and out of time with Ellis’ sax fills throughout the first set, Hunter was given some room to solo. Showing off the many sounds of his crackerjack axe: trumpet, organ, rock guitar, upright hollow bass and even a DJ’s turntable, the Novax has it all and the wizard controlling it was absolutely awe-inspiring. So much in fact that the band repeatedly exchanged some well-deserved high-fives.
After talking through their next move, Hunter dove into a jump-beat, set up by Chopek, with his customary tambourine play. This percussive jamming would prove thematic as the night progressed. Forcing the attendees to dance with their next few selections, Hunter showed that he is also adept at poppy blues-rock jams a la Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. Shaking a small amp added a thunderous splash to accent this tornado of unbridled energy. The final piece of the first set, Rendezvous Avec La Verite, from his latest album, was sweetened with a Latin groove and finished up with a “Sex and the City” theme-song-like calypso swing.
Set two began with what sounded eerily like Miles Davis’ So What but quickly moved into a smooth shuffle accented by Jimmy Blake’s tenor sax joining the group midway.
The next song marked the moment that the gumbo really started to simmer. Joshua Roseman, arriving via roller-blades, emerged from the crowd and joined the now-quintet on trombone for the most exploratory and hot jam of the evening. Using another track from the album, Two For Bleu, as the vehicle for the players to take off the audience was invited into their galaxy of groove. Clocking in at well over twenty minutes, Hunter fed off the loose energy and sang some well-timed be-bop scat that forced Ellis to admire with a grin. The spontaneous vocal jam, coupled with matching guitar chords, had Hunter completing the impromptu incantation with a Stevie Wonder-like breakdown that would have no doubt made Mr. Wonder proud.
The band nailed a robust liquid groove that seemed loosely centered on John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Hunter rocked out hard here and got those fingers jumping to keep time with the hopping horn section.
Hunter clearly owns the stage and has become a confident bandleader in the process. He also relishes the chance to tackle percussion beats when the moment takes over. At one point, he ejected Lovejoy from his bongo perch to bang out some simple thumps during a break in the song as Chopek and Roseman cheered him on. Hunter would not return to his guitar the rest of the night, deciding instead that percussion rhythms were enough to round out the show.
It may not be clear to the casual observer that Hunter’s influences range from the obvious (Charlie Parker, Parliament) to the obscure (Dead Kennedys, Primus) but all fit nicely into a tight formation and one should not be discounted for the other. Hunter has shown that jazz is clearly not dead and is finding fresh legs with non-standard sounds and modern arrangements.
Hunter returns for one more gig (making it four weeks in a row) next Thursday, February 15th. This residency also serves as a warm-up for the highly anticipated Mike Clark’s Prescription Renewal Tour that kicks off on March 2nd. Also, be sure to check out Hunter’s independently released and very excellent Solo Eight-String Guitar, (available only at www.charliehunter.com and at gigs) which finds Hunter all alone and recorded for posterity following the completion of last year’s Charlie Hunter.
JamBase New York Correspondent
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