[12 March 2003]
Mr. Tambourine Man“The bass / the treble / don’t make the rebel / playing the tambourine does.”
The poor tambourine. Not quite on the fringe of respectability, never given the spotlight set aside for the mighty guitar solo, often reserved for the pretty backup singer who can't play a lick. Of course, there are exceptions -- go to a gospel service and you'll hear the tambourine rattle forth the Mighty Spirit. But in the common secular arena, the tambourine is the equivalent of the redheaded stepchild: always the recipient of the cruel joke. So, leave it to the indomitable Charlie Hunter to bring a little respect to the maligned, yet important instrument. If you've never had the pleasure of experiencing a tambourine solo that could simultaneously drop your jaw and wiggle your hips, then I highly recommend you catch the Charlie Hunter Quintet the next time they rattle and roll into your town.
Okay, Charlie Hunter doesn't really play the tambourine. Well, maybe he does, but he didn't play it the night I saw him at Tribeca's laid-back and smoke-free club No Moore. But if you had listened to the 250 folk who sold out the joint, you'd never know that he didn't. I heard many a guy, beer clenched in hand, slap his buddy on the back and exclaim (more or less), "Dude! Is that a fucking tambourine Charlie's playing?!" And though the correct answer would have been: "Why no my friend. That would be a pandeiro; it comes from Brazil via Africa, can be tuned, and is a staple instrument of samba and that play fighting-with-cartwheels-dance called capoeira you see all those guys doing in the park," I usually heard a "Yeah dude, I think that
is a fucking tambourine. Cool. Charlie rocks!” in response.
So why split hairs? It’s a large tambourine. The point is that with his talent, Charlie Hunter can play anything he damn well pleases. And he can play it exceptionally well. Best known for his uncanny ability to play bass and electric guitar on a specially made eight-string axe (three bass strings above five electric guitar strings, all on the same guitar neck), he has garnered a hefty worldwide fan base over the last decade or so. He has also been prolific in the album department, churning out nine albums in nine years, many of them for the seminal jazz label, New Jersey-based Blue Note Records.
In support of his tenth album effort, Right Now Move, due out later this month on Rope A Dope records, the Charlie Hunter Quintet set up shop last month for five once-a-week gigs at No Moore, a narrow bi-level club in downtown Manhattan. These shows were reminiscent of Hunter’s early San Francisco days (nights, really)—right after his 1993 stadium tour as bassist for industrial hip hoppers, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (who opened for Public Enemy and U2)—in which his group would hole up in the cozy confines of the Elbow Room or Up and Down Club and lay out whatever the vibe was that night. I saw him many a time then, as did a slew of others, and it’s probably safe to say that he is responsible for turning thousands of young white listeners, who were busy listening to Primus, Metallica and the Grateful Dead, onto the complex magnificence of jazz. There were (and are) many reasons for his accessibility. Initially, the Charlie Hunter Trio (and then later, Quartet, Duo, Solo, and Quintet) made it clear that they could lay down and sustain a groove. With Hunter emulating Hammond B3 chords on his guitar, the sound was similar to the great propagators of 1960s soul jazz, like Jack McDuff and Charles Earland. In ‘95, on his first Blue Note release, he deftly covered Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, which became a huge hit during subsequent shows. Then, in ‘97, when the Charlie Hunter Quartet covered Bob Marley’s entire Natty Dread album, the jamband base was solidified. Now you can find Charlie Hunter fans all over, from Phish concerts to Van Halen reunion tours. And I have no doubts that, if he wanted to, Charlie Hunter could blast guitar solos like Eddie.
Another big reason people go to lengths to see Charlie Hunter perform is because it is really, really cool to watch someone play bass, lead and rhythm guitar, and organ all at the same time on the same guitar, no matter the genre of music or lineup. It’s that simple, really. But I guess Hunter got a bit bored with this once novel act, and just had to learn the tambourine—I mean, pandeiro. So, armed with his new toy and trusted eight-string, Hunter and the rest of the quintet—Geoff Clapp on drums, Alan Ferber on trombone, John Ellis on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Gregoire Maret on chromatic harmonica—played two hour-long sets that revolved around that soul jazz groove. This was music you could dance to, and many people did just that, in that weird, jerky Grateful Deadhead sort of way (what we used to call, growing up, the Dirt Dance). The songs were mostly from the upcoming album, and often stretched beyond the ten-minute mark, each musician feeding off the others’ efforts. They were all more than adept at their instruments, exuding a comfort with one another that allowed for both elastic improvisation and loose booty.
On cuts such as “Winky”, “Whoop Ass”, and “Oakland” the bass was heavy and locked in with the horns in that early, East Bay Tower of Power way, funkin’ up the noisy crowd. It isn’t often that one hears a chromatic harmonica coming from a “jazz” ensemble, and that’s a shame. For it was sheer beauty that Gregoire Maret was able to elicit from his, adding rich textures to the harmonies being pushed from the tenor sax and trombone. His playing will bring forth obvious comparisons to the Danish virtuoso Lee Oskar (and not just for the ‘fro-like hair), who revolutionized the possibilities for funk and soul harmonica with his gloriously dynamic group, War. Maret’s harmonica was nicely matched by John Ellis’ use of the bass clarinet on “Wade in the Water” and “Le Bateau Ivre”, two mellow numbers that showcased the quintet’s lush, thick sound. And of course there was Charlie Hunter on guitar, alternating between the rich organ of John Patton and the virtuoso picking of Wes Montgomery. What more can be said about the man’s guitar abilities that hasn’t been said?
Which brings us back to that lovely jazz oddity: the pandeiro. In the right set of hands, this instrument could make a full house at Madison Square Garden wave their hands in the air. A few of us just didn’t care and did just that during Hunter’s extended slap happy pandeiro runs, which he used as intros and breaks for various numbers. He would hold the pandeiro directly over a mic, so that a multi-toned boom filled the room, setting the rhythm for his mates to follow. This would often lead to Hunter getting excited and slapping the tom tom drum or snare to the beat of whatever Geoff Clapp was doing with his nimble drumsticks. It was more than a stunt: Charlie Hunter really can play the tambourine. I swear. Go see him do it for yourself. Right now. Move!