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Charlie Hunter Quintet: Right Now Live [DVD]

Charlie Hunter Quintet

A DVD release from the Berkeley, CA-based guitarist Charlie Hunter is not only long-overdue, it’s quite essential: Hunter is one of those performers you must see to believe. Hunter is a jazz player for the new century, a master of his custom-made eight-string electric guitar which allows him to simultaneously play bass, rhythm, and lead. He’s easily impressive on record, where his effortless ability to perform three parts at once is just as compelling as the soul he throws behind it. Watching him is where all logic is gleefully defied. Right Now Live (which documents a private party held by Ropeadope Records in a Philadelphia warehouse, exclusively for the DVD taping) offers what Hunter’s records don’t: front-row visualization of a left hand subconsciously working itself into a frenzy, teeth gritted in everlasting intensity, a shamanic telepathy between mind and instrument.

Hunter is what the kids call “sick”: if you’re a guitarist, he’s the guy who makes you want to hang it all up. You love him and hate him for it. He cut his teeth playing reggae and blues bars while still in high school, equally inspired by Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. He spent time in Michael Franti’s politically charged the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the iconoclastic TJ Kirk, a quartet that fused the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But despite his eclectic resume, Hunter’s more expressive work comes from his own funky jazz combos. Whether he’s covering Charles Mingus or Nirvana, Hunter consistently breathes new textures into the source material, twisting genres with a traditionalist’s bent.

Right Now Live is split into two halves, with the first four songs showcasing Hunter solo. On these selections, Hunter’s able to stretch out and explore his command of the eight-string guitar, with inspired results. “Recess” steadies a delicious bass groove to buoy Hunter’s jaw-dropping nimble improvisation (run through his trademark Hammond B-3 organ effect). Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is rendered in Hendrix-y fret waves and scribbles before quickly turning into a Leo Kottke-inspired vamp. Hunter’s phrasing is like a pianist’s in “Stars Fell on Alabama” and he transforms the dizzying melodic descents of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High” into a sheer blizzard of activity.

The second half of the DVD highlights Hunter’s quintet in action: frequent collaborators John Ellis and Derek Phillips, on tenor sax and drums respectively, Gregoire Maret on chromatic harmonica, and Curtis Fowlkes (of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and the Jazz Passengers fame) on trombone. The quintet’s rhythms and heads are listener-friendly (Phillips often plays more rock-oriented beats than jazz) and the players save their challenging hard bop connotations for extended improvisations. One of the best tracks is “Mali”, which announces itself in big blocked chords, transmuting into a soaring melody of movement with shades from all players. Maret’s chromatic harmonica provides an intriguing texture; while it’s not an instrument you often hear in this setting, it surprisingly holds its own next to the sax and trombone.

The entire quintet performance is crammed with nuggets of spice: Phillips subverting the rhythm on top of Hunter’s unwavering bass in “Mestre Tata”; Fowlkes’ supremely melodic solo deep in the Cuban-infected “Changui”; the charged wrestling bout between Ellis and Hunter embedded in “Try”. The band is constantly communicating, adding counter-melodies and harmonic support to each other’s moments in the spotlight. This sense of ecstatic involvement is the key to Right Now Live‘s success, as it translates so easily from the screen to the viewer.

The DVD looks and sounds fantastic; no less than nine cameras captured the action, and the audio is mixed in pristine 5.1 surround. It’s a bit weak in the extras department, which consists only of band member bios and publicity photos, but that’s a small gripe since the main attraction is the performance itself. For fans of Charlie Hunter (both those who have and haven’t had the privilege to catch him live), Right Now Live is nothing short of an essential visual document of a performer in his prime. It may not provide insight into exactly how he plays that eight-string guitar (a spellbinding mystery for the ages), but it fully submerges you into Hunter’s fermenting, topsy-turvy world.