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Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther Plus John Medeski

Altitude

Above Sea Level and Below Sea Level

(Thirsty Ear; US: 25 Sep 2007; UK: Available as import)

Groundtruther is the name that drummer Bobby Previte and guitarist Charlie Hunter have given to their ambitious duet project.  In fact, the project revolves around the number three. On each of three recordings they have paired up with a third collaborator.  On Latitude they played with alto saxophonist Greg Osby, and on Longitude they worked with turntablist D.J. Logic.  The final recording, Altitude, is a two-disc collaboration with keyboard player John Medeski.  The result is the most complete and organic of the Groundtruther projects, the first time that the group sounds complete. Its guiding principles are resulting in music that compels from start to finish.


Altitude is divided in half.  Above Sea Level is an electric essay in freedom, groove, and exploration.  Below Sea Level is acoustic but equally “out”.  Writing about it, to be frank, is a challenge.


“Pyramid of Giza”, for example, is just plain fun to listen to.  From a series of fusionoid blasts, Previte sets of a light drum groove that seems straight out of Bitches Brew.  A repeated riff becomes the melody, with Medeski’s keyboards sounding both artificial and real, like strings, like old ARP synths, like a stringed instrument from India.  Hunter plays licks that smack of old John McLaughlin sides, then he turns around and unleashes fat slabs of low distortion.  The groove wanders from blues to world music, flavored by both 20th century avant-garde classical composition and prog-rock vibe from the 1970s.


A fair question to raise is how is this music different from the jammy-jazzrock of Medeski’s full-time band, Medeski, Martin & Wood?  (Additional question: Write in your journal tonight about how MMW is different from other so-called jam bands such as Phish.  This topic will be covered on the semester exam.)  Groundtruther is less of a groove band, primarily.  While Previte is no stranger to pop rhythms, this band is continuously on the move and thus unhappy with setting up the funk and bathing in it for too long. 
“Seoul Tower” works as a fairly straight rock song. It lets Hunter play a straight up rock solo that is more inventive than most of his “jazzier” work. But it has none of that lazy bump that characterizes so much of the Grateful Dead jam-groove.  It’s more badass.


In other cases, the distinction between Groundtruther with Medeski and MMW is the premium on the atmosphere that is at work here.  MMW may clutter up the sound collage with cinematic texture for a minute or two, but Above Sea Level dedicates itself for long stretches to fringe-of-tolerance music-making, with Previte banging away from the groove (“Kingda Ka”) or never setting up a groove (“Everest”) in favor of floating vapor.  Because Medeski can play so many different roles, melodist, creator of bass-lines, accompanist, and colorist Altitude is more versatile than the other Groundtruther discs and seems to carry off these moments of distortion with greater variety and interest.  Particularly on the electric disc, the trio seems capable of playing just about anything and making it interesting.  Its “out” style has structure, and the rocking sections never collapse into cliché.


Beneath Sea Level, the acoustic disc, presents fresh challenges to Groundtruther, but it’s a deep pleasure to hear the team work them out.  “Straight” avant-garde jazz artists, of course, have been exploring the acoustic space for decades.  But for musicians who are used to arraying vast electric sounds in pursuit of the edge, simply playing atonally is not going to do.  In addition, there haven’t been too many out-jazz trios featuring piano, drums, and guitar.  So, where does it go?


In this case, the band neither recreates its electric groove nor retreats to easy delicacy.  Rather, Previte, Hunter, and Medeski set about creating a series of complex honeycombs of sound-texture.  They weave their lines into rough surfaces that rely most heavily on the piano, but in no conventional sense.  Medeski doesn’t play a composed theme, but he carries the group as the controlling voice, setting a forward light as they improvise freely into the territory ahead.  Most of these pieces are brief, but they build to the impressive “Mariana Trench”, where the group reaches for just enough lyricism to sustain a longer exploration without hitting a clear swing or groove.


By exposing two very different sides to the Groundtruther project, Altitude gets more to the heart of the matter than the groups previous recordings.  Medeski brings so many capabilities to the table that he finally balances the group and is able to warm up the sound of the music so that, without any sweetening, it becomes increasingly entertaining and listenable.


From the beginning of the Groundtruther project, it has been announced that there would be tree discs, three collaborators, and three chapters.  Through Chapter Two, that seemed more than enough to me.  But now, with two more discs of adventurous, vibrant music, Groundtruther seems suddenly like a project that could stand to be renewed for another season.  I know I’d tune in.

Rating:

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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