[8 February 2006]
Charlie Hunter has become a richly versatile jazz guitarist in the last decade, even if he did start out as a “gimmick” player on a par with Stanley Jordan. Do you remember Jordan? Maybe not, and that’s the point.
Stanley Jordan, like Mr. Hunter, was signed to and hyped by Blue Note (jazz’s current Cadillac label, what with both Norah Jones and Wynton Marsalis on the roster). His gimmick was that he played the guitar like it was a piano—finger-tapping the fret board with both hands to achieve a unique sound that enchanted . . . briefly. For a few years during the Reagan administration, he was the star of jazz, then . . . poof!
Hunter’s gimmick is an eight-string guitar, allowing him to cover both guitar and bass duties at the same time with remarkable independence and agility. As an economic matter, it’s a salary-saver, allowing The Charlie Hunter Trio to sound more like a quintet, Hunter on bass and guitar and saxophonist David Ellis doubling on Wurlitzer electric piano and melodia. It’s as an artistic improvement over Mr. Jordan’s oeuvre too—something that works with a band (Jordan’s good stuff was all solo) and something that plays dirty, pretty, out and in, equally well.
And so it is that Hunter has transcended the gimmick to play compelling music, a fervent and juiced brand of jam-jazz that has ranged from Medeski, Martin, and Wood groove to spare duets with drummer Leon Parker to a full-album cover of Marley’s Natty Dread to accompaniments for vocalists as diverse as Kurt Elling and Mos Def. And in all that diversity of style and context, his “gimmick” has served him well as a through-line of personality. He’s a soulful jazz guitarist who has assimilated influences across all of blues-based music. Pretty incredible.
Copperopolis is a back-to-basics record, a rockin’ outing for guitar, drums, and tenor sax that works as “instrumental rock” or as boogie jazz for the day after tomorrow. The drummer Derrick Phillips powers it all with a backbeat that never feels fake or falsely “funky”. This is not a processed, smoove jazz operation. But at the same time, it’s not a loose-limbed Phish-fest either. It’s a snatch of Hendrix on “Cueball Bobbin’” a dirt-drenched blues; it’s a N’awlins second-line Latin feel on “Swamba Redux”; it’s a slow-drag 12/8 groove for unison tenor/guitar on the title track, conjuring the hippest strip club you’ve ever seen in an old movie; and it’s a cute Scofield-esque line on “Blue Sock” that gets you bobbing your head forward-and-back, forward-and-back. “The Pursuit Package” is Dick Dale meets Ennio Morricone, and “Drop the Rock” is an effectively cinematic mood ballad. And just so you deep jazz fans don’t feel neglected, Mr. Hunter closes things out with a Meters-y version of Monk’s “Think of One” that opens up plenty of space for Ellis to blow over a combination of Phillips groove and Hunter in a Frisell-ian mood. Great variety, but through it all there is home-cooked backbeat aplenty.
For all that, Copperopolis is merely a very good and fun record. It knows what it is about, and so do you—it’s comfortable in its licks and riffs and powerfully tight rhythm section playing. But maybe like a very good romantic comedy or a very well done adventure movie, it comes along at a time when we’ve seen quite a few already. Like I said, it’s a back-to-basics exercise, and so: basic it is. The band plays together the way a true working band should, but no soloist really stretches out or discovers anything new or personal. There are no surprises or dramatic stories here. You should certainly catch these guys in concert, and you’ll find everything on Copperopolis perfectly in place. But this also might be that record you put on when you’re studying or cooking dinner—a disc that, if you’re not careful, might glide by in the background only half-noticed.
But maybe that’s the price of being a very fine and also somewhat prolific and scattershot instrumentalist: they’re not all masterpieces.