Charlie Hunter: Songs from the Analog Playground

Charlie Hunter
Songs from the Analog Playground
Blue Note

Why is there not more of a buzz about this album? Is it the terrible cover which makes it look like Big Brother and the Holding Company circa 1968? Is it because it is too “Jazz”? Is it because it is not “Jazz” enough? Something very odd is happening anyway, because modern music needs records like this.

For his eighth album, guitarist Hunter has added singers for the first time. Not only that, he has introduced four vocal artists who are as distinct and different as you can imagine. In addition, the stylistic range takes in Latin, Breaks and Beats, Hip-Hop, Blues, Funk and, of course, Jazz. If this was not eclectic enough, there are also covers of tunes by Bryan Ferry and Nick Drake. The whole mélange is given a relaxed, live and down-home feel with Hunter’s playing even sparer than usual. A mess? A contrived attempt to boost sales? Not at all. Songs is just about the freshest sounding disc Bluenote have put out this year. I don’t think they should market it to the jazz crowd though. This is 21st-century soul music.

OK, so it’s a jazz album too. What I mean is that the vibe (and it has vibe in serious doses) is closer to D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Mos Def and the whole organic, neo-soul thing than it is to the world of Wynton and his mates. In some ways this is hardly surprising since Hunter was responsible for some of the best moments of Voodoo, D’Angelo’s last, enigmatic effort. Plus, Mos Def is one of the four guests, but more of him later. Even without this connection it is obvious that Hunter and his 8-string guitar have gradually abandoned the conventional jazz guitarist’s route to technical perfection in favour of a looser, funkier groove. Loose it certainly is, but in the best possible way, and while it contains some great solo work it is not really that sort of set. It is sometimes reminiscent of Voodoo in the way it meanders and flows but is much less oppressive in mood, with more variety and better songs.

Kicking off with some Afro-Cuban percussion, over which Mos Def comes on like a laid-back Last Poet, “Street Sounds” lets you know at once that this isn’t just another guitar album. Hunter barely puts in an appearance until track two. Even so, his sense of space and conceptual freedom shapes both the opener and the ensuing songs. The fact that he plays 8-string is important. He thus dispenses with a bass player, which is not the disaster it sounds. His very fine quartet consists of guitar, drums, percussion and tenor sax. There seems more room for them somehow, and the two percussionists are central to the dynamics. Each number is much more beats-driven than most jazz and this is the main reason why the record sounds close to the nu-soul camp. By the time guitar and tenor solo or trade licks — on the second number, a funky instrumental called “Rhythm Music Rides Again” — the pattern has been established and the listener almost forgets we are always working within an improvisatory tradition. Significantly “Rhythm Music” is Hunter’s preferred term for the path he is pursuing — it’s accurate and I hope it catches on.

Not that I want to downplay the quality of that soloing. There are five instrumentals and eight vocal cuts. The instrumentals are very groove-oriented but Hunter makes every lick count. Almost out-stretching him though is John Ellis on sax. He has a soul-drenched sound and seems completely clued in to every generic twist and turn that the album takes. Stephen Chopek and Chris Lovejoy provide the beats and relish their joint lead role. You will hear flashier sticks-work but the percussion sound is really special and incredibly astute. It is no coincidence that the finest non-vocal track is called “Percussion Shuffle”. This just grabs you in the opening bars and won’t let go. It has passion and logic to spare — awesome.

Each of the singing guests gets two songs each. But Mos Def is a rapper, I hear you say. Not on “Creole” he isn’t. Here he is a jazz vocalist of hip, black beatnik variety. In fact he is easier on the ear than the imported jazz vocalist proper, the very strange but quirkily endearing, Kurt Elling. Elling has a roughened, almost off-key, King Pleasure style — almost the definition of what is known as an “acquired taste”. “Close Your Eyes” is scat vocalese while “Desert Way” is a sort of bizarre half-spoken poem. The latter is the better of the two; both are fine, but jazz voice prize goes to Mos Def for his nostalgic trip into Oscar Brown/Chet Baker territory.

Next up comes big-voiced New Orleans shouter, the marvelously named Theryl De’Clouet. He rocks his way through the bluesy “Mighty, Mighty” — OK but a bit run of the mill — and then provides us with a spine-tingling reading of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”. It doesn’t owe much to Howling Wolf, and thankfully less to Cream, but is stripped down and slowed down, so that the lyrics take on a disturbing, primal quality in a way Burnett would have relished. It is hard to imagine that those over familiar riffs could still hit home — they do though. Hunter breathes new life into the one blues break every schoolboy used to know. This is the key to the record’s success: everything is so recognisable but sounds brand new, as if witnessed from a hitherto undiscovered angle.

Lastly, we come to the most controversial guest at this heterodox feast, Texan chanteuse Norah Jones. Controversial because she is a conventional, if rather good, folk-rock vocalist. She does have a smoky, jazzy way of phrasing and that is put to good use on Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This”. Re-worked as a bossa nova, with Ellis supplying some supreme flourishes, it is both a surprise and a wonder. So too is Nick Drake’s “Day Is Done”. Well, less of a surprise perhaps as everybody loves the tragic English singer-songwriter these days. Pity no-one picked up on his remarkable compositions when he was alive. Jones gives the lyrics a relatively straight treatment in that over-earnest, “authentic” style, of which I’m less than fond but which is, in this instance, effective. Typically telling sax and drum exchanges help out to make it a suitably melancholy closing track.

All I can say is — “More Please”. Songs from the Analog Playground has bits of everything but still manages a loose-limbed coherence. I hope it doesn’t fall between the forest of stools it has liberally laid out. Hunter is generally content to stay part of the pack but cuts loose occasionally with what is surely the most distinctive guitar sound around. Also the overall vision is very much his. All participants add something of their own and the result is as rewarding an affirmation of the strength and diversity of the current scene as anyone has a right to expect. It may horrify some in the jazz world and will undoubtedly be deemed too far out for Urban radio. What greater recommendation than that do you need?