Charlie Hunter is a jazz guitarist of the new order. He is neither a jazz player who solos over rock grooves or a rock player who adopts jazz as his “legit” pose. Rather, Hunter works a rootsy middle ground that seeks to be fun like rock and clever like jazz but somehow neither one at all. Cool music indeed. But how successful is this part-cow/part-sheep from album to album?
Mistico features Hunter’s trio, with drummer Simon Lott and keyboard player Erik Deutsch. You may have heard Hunter with a quartet (add saxophone), a quintet, a trio with sax, band T.J. Kirk (playing Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan), or in various other collaborations. With his guitar augmented to seven or eight strings to allow him to play authentic bass guitar lines, he has been the ultimately versatile modern guitarist. But, in fact, Hunter’s music has a strong through line of similarity.
The latest is very much in the line of Hunter’s basic sound, which are guitar-centric melodies in a blues strain that are given rocking arrangements. Mistico is, typically, well produced. Lott’s drums boom and slap with a hip, rough edge. The keyboard sounds fill the complete sonic space. They are acoustic and electric all sounding wonderful and never cheesy. Hunter’s guitar takes on dozens of tones, almost all ballsy and authentic. None of the instruments sounds like they are plucked off a “jazz” record. They are not clean or fleet or chill. It is a bit as if T-Bone Burnett or Daniel Lanois made an instrumental jazz record. Despite the R&B feeling at times, there is nothing “smooth” about this electric jazz.
Yet there is still sameness afoot. “Wizard Sleeve” is a cool tune. Lott lays down a funk that is tight-loose in sync with a stuttering bass note groove. Hunter’s melody is angular but still blues-infused. It’s memorable in a certain way, and the arrangement is clever, with the rhythm cutting out to leave Hunter alone to repeat a catchy figure and then a spacey keyboard solo with a vintage tinge to it. “Special Shirt” is totally different. The guitar melody is stated in a crunch wah-wah, alternating with either clavinet or acoustic piano figures. Or is is so different? The rootsy rock groove is the same, and the harmonic palette is four-chord simple. Both tunes bump along with an amiable, hip rock insouciance. As do dozens of other Charlie Hunter tunes on his other albums.
Some dare to differ nicely. “Estranged” is an atmospheric ballad on which a ringing piano states the melody. Hunter plays dirty arpeggios behind Deutsch, and Lott is clanking percussion millimeters from a microphone. It is the kind of track that moves with precision, not seeming like just another happy-go-lucky jam. Hunter’s brief solo finds him pulling out a tone that sounds like John McLaughlin without the indulgence of speed. Tasty.
“Spoken Word” hands the reigns over to Lott, who plays messy-fun solos between tempo-shirting episodes of the melody. Puckish and fun, it has the quality of high-jinx. “Mistico” unravels slowly over a three-note bass line that sounds like it was pulled from one of the better Miles Davis comeback records (“Tutu”?). Hunter’s tone is fat and reverby, and the harmonic shift triggered by low piano notes at the three-point mark is just the kind of subtle change that this music needs. During Hunter’s imaginative solo, Deutsch accompanies with wit and atmosphere, tossing in a dash of reggae here or there, for instance, and Lott sounds reactively in-the-moment.
And so the overall program, a couple of jammy-groove cuts followed by something more interesting, then back again, is utterly pleasant and great-sounding. And it’s just a touch too forgettable. Hunter fans will be getting what he always delivers in spades. But that is the problem right there. Having been delivered in spades enough times before, Charlie Hunter’s gutsy new-era-jazz guitar has begun to sound like a new kind of formula. I suspect that Hunter fans would find all those Grant Green Blue Notes from the 1960s too tame and same, but I also suspect that listeners 25 years on will hear these sides as similarly bland. “That’s good stuff”, they’ll say, “but how much of it can you listen to?”