Charlie Hunter has been plying his groove-laden 8-string guitar work for some time now, and has become a popular fixture among both modern jazz guitar fans and jam band fans. His uncanny ability to play bass lines, provide chord comping, and still play stellar solos, as well as the fact that his guitar sometimes sounds rather like a Hammond B-3 organ certainly helped gain him notice. However, the novelty of Hunter's dexterity would have worn off long ago if not for the fact that he is constantly challenging himself and providing his listeners with new contexts for his sound. After a series of trio albums, Hunter presented listeners with a soul-jazz quartet on Ready . . . Set . . . Shango!. 2001's Songs from the Analog Playground found him playing with a series of guest vocalists that included Norah Jones and Kurt Elling. Right Now Move, Hunter's first recording for the Rope A Dope label, found him performing all original compositions with an expanded band that included trombone, saxophone, and harmonica. His latest release, Friends Seen and Unseen, finds him back in trio territory. Concise, clean, and without any unnecessary frills, it is one of his finest recordings to date.
Hunter's music is all about groove, but he's able to mine an amazing number of different grooves and doesn't get bogged down in the jamming for jamming's sake school of guitarism. Hunter's trio model is that of the '60s organ trio. Those groups generally allowed the organist to function as bassist, so they were able to add a horn player and still retain the trio format. Hunter goes that one better, playing not only the organ and bass roles but also that of guitarist. Few listeners hearing this recording in a blindfold test would identify it as a trio.
The first two tracks mine somewhat familiar territory, with "One for the Kelpers" finding a cool soul-jazz groove that is reminiscent of the work of Richard "Groove" Holmes or Johnny "Hammond" Smith, with saxophonist John Ellis doing his best Gene Ammons work. "Freedom Tickler" could have come from an early Medeski Martin and Wood album, and while it's a pleasant ride, it provides few surprises. More interesting is the Hunter original "Lulu's Crawl", which allows Ellis to dip into a sonic palette that is reminiscent of the sax work heard on obscure surf tracks by groups like the Revels. At the same time, the bluesy tune also finds Hunter dipping into a rock-influenced guitar sound with lots of satisfying distortion and pedals. It's like a trip to a cheap strip club on acid. Hunter's "Darkly" continues to mine a mysterious vibe, but the reference point this time is a straight-ahead jazz group with flute, again a sound that harks back at least three decades. Hunter and his group are able to reference these earlier sounds without really ever coming across as retro, in large part because Hunter and Ellis both are modern jazz musicians whose solo voices come across as completely their own.
The album's middle track, a rendering of Abdullah Ibrahim's "Soweto's Where It's At", is a revelation. Ibrahim's gentle melody is provided with loads of American gospel and blues subtext by Hunter, who rarely plays in such an unabashedly straightforward blues style. Hunter's solo on this track is stunning, with everything in place and not a wasted note to be heard. Ellis is overdubbed in the final statement of the melody as a complete woodwind section, playing tenor sax, bass clarinet, and flute. It's a marvelously serene performance that will not fail to impress any listener.
On the disc's second half, Hunter provides an effects-laden base for an angular post-modern jazz freakout ("Running in Fear from Imaginary Assailants"), does a less traditional take on the blues ("Eleven Bars for Gandhi"), and explores other jazz-oriented grooves ("Bonus Round" and "My Son the Hurricane"). The final track, "Moore's Alphabet", plays to Hunter's jam-based audience, bringing to a satisfying conclusion a CD on which Hunter has managed to compact every positive element in his style and the trio format he favors into a cohesive, comprehensive whole. For those enamored of groove based jazz or jam music, soul jazz, or modern guitar, Friends Seen and Unseen is likely to be one of the highlights of the year.