The first time I saw Charlie Hunter was about ten years ago, in Montréal. A pal brought me down to the Metropolis, and we pushed our way up through the throng of dancers to the middle of the floor. While she danced her ass off, I stood there (as usual) with my knees bouncing goofily, drinking it all in (it’s generally a good idea for me to resist the urge to dance). What we heard that night really was something: a wild set full of fuzzy noise, slick grooves, jammy collaboration, and p-h-a-t beats. Of course — and this is true, I swear — the one bummer was that I couldn’t believe how boring the bass player was. He was such a stay-at-home player, so tied to these basic little lines. I thought it was peculiar for a funk band. Where was the wicked booming bottom? And then I realized there was no bass player onstage. Charlie Hunter was playing THE BASS AND THE GUITAR AT THE SAME TIME. Hunter’s custom-made instrument is a curious hybrid of bottom and top, and he plays both the basslines and the guitar solos simultaneously. That’s helpful to know, because it means you’ll understand why the bass player isn’t wailing. He’s busy wailing on the guitar. This time around, Hunter and his New York-based trio played Toronto as part of the NuFunk Festival. The disappointing turnout didn’t seem to affect them; the trio came onstage all smiles and hellos, its members’ enthusiasm apparent and contagious. Dance-ready twentysomethings moved forward and crowded around the stage, ready for a groove. The jazz aficionados stood on tables and benches in the back, prepared for what was advertised as a true guitar hero playing with his airtight downtown jazz band. Curiously, the trio squandered much of this pent-up excitement, launching into a series of slow-burners, each of the first three lasting around 15 minutes. As the audience stood there — a bit unsure of just how to get down to this stuff — the trio never looked back. The boys hit their stride, offering some searing mid-tempo blues-based numbers, all designed to showcase Hunter’s ridiculous skills on his custom-made hybrid (with its weird, twisted neck). The stride was mellow, unhurried, and dreamy. Not much to shake a leg at.
Somewhere amid this smooth grooving, it became clear why the room was a mere quarter full. The musicians, although undoubtedly immersed in their work and apparently flowing freely, offer a product that falls into the funny furrow between jamband and jazzband. This might sound meaningless (and perhaps it should) but the two audiences demand very different things from their music. The jamband audience insists upon a progression of kinetic grooves; jazz listeners require remarkable, focused musicianship. The Charlie Hunter Trio didn’t have quite enough of either. The jams were extensive, the guitar solos fluid and proficient, and yet the hybrid crowd was reduced to an absentminded, if benevolent, collective indifference. It didn’t help that Hunter played from a chair, generating little energy with his foot-tapping and head-rocking. But it was the general pace of the affair that really hit sour. With nearly every number falling in the same mid-speed range, the intensity level rarely bubbled above a simmer. While the hippie kids — all fired up on smelly pot and powdery what-have-you — yelped their encouragement at the stage, Hunter’s set list restrained them to a frustrated knee bounce and an occasional (if sort of awkward) roof-raising. Not that it’s a musician’s job, necessarily, to give the people what they want — indeed, it’s pretty thrilling sometimes to see bands who refuse to go through those motions. That said, it probably is the responsibility of a jamband. I mean, what’s the point of a 20-minute rumbling blues number if there is to be no emotional peak, no dark valley — just endless, apparently self-congratulatory riffing? Now, that riffing was pretty hot, mind you. Hunter is a guitar whiz, as advertised. And Tony Mason (drums) and Eric Deutsch (keyboards) are certainly capable, if restrained, sidemen. Even so, neither managed to rise above the fray, delivering that special noise, that glorious moment that one heads to the jam to witness. They just played, and it all sounded good. It sounded good, but not good enough that you couldn’t look away, couldn’t take your ears off the progression, your mind off the soloist as he explored the possibilities of the tune. In fact, almost everyone around me talked through the whole thing as if it were all mere background music to a night at the club. As one clearly bored university student said to her date (who was not amused by the comment): “It’s like Medeski Martin & Wood — but without the awesome organist, bassist, and drummer.” Yikes.