February 2006

Charlie Hunter
Presented by Toronto Downtown Jazz & GMP Productions
February 22, 2006The El MocamboToronto
Rhythm Ring
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert

On Wednesday, February the 22nd, The Charlie Hunter Trio played Toronto’s El Mocambo. This trio is composed of Derrek Phillips on drums, John Ellis on tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, Wurlitzer and melodica and Charlie Hunter on eight-string guitar, or in other words, on bass and guitar using the same instrument. Having played with each other many times before and having recorded the CD Friends Seen and Unseen together in 2004, these players have come to know each other’s musical proclivities well. On stage, they converse easily through sound and facial expression. This enables them to complement each other through long jamming passages and adventurous solos without being forced into cautious minimalism.

On this night, they were playing new material from their just-released CD, Copperopolis. It’s rockier stuff than Friends Seen and Unseen. The first set started with a heavy bass which grew into guitar over a groove as Derrek Phillips picked up a shaker. John Ellis’ sax brought in the melody. Charlie Hunter added a full complement of bass and guitar distortions and vibrations, intricate finger-picked notes and strategically placed snaps. Reedman John Ellis put down his tenor and comped on the keyboard keeping a steady rhythm through an extended guitar solo with a fury of Hendrix-accented licks.

John Ellis introduced the second piece with the sound of the melodica which sat on top of his keyboard, playing it with a blowing tube. Sometimes as whimsical as a toy harmonica, sometimes accordion-like, it was an interesting addition to the mix and not over-used. When John Ellis gave up the melodica for the electronic organ, its vibrato and Charlie’s bass vibrato would often meet, making it difficult to tell which sound was coming from which instrument.

One New Orleans shuffle-based piece was brushed with a latin tinge, among other things, and even a brief hint of tango. Adding bass punctuation to the drums, Charlie bared his teeth and pulled out some high notes on guitar. Fleeting bites of standards came in via sax and melody became a golfball with the cover ripped off, an elastic-wound sphere stretched, rearranged and tossed about. Guitar ripped and the bass took to rumbling. My ears anticipated a bass solo coming but it never arrived. It would seem that one of the advantages of the eight string guitar is how well bass and guitar can work together. The downside could be the more limited soloing possibilities of only three bass strings.

However, the rhythmic power that can be achieved with guitar and bass in the same hands is something to be heard, especially when they are the hands of a rhythm master. A passage in which he switched into double-time on both guitar and bass brought a grin to Charlie’s face and compelled him to vocalize. A heavy 2-4 'window-rattling' blues bass with high-flying guitar followed. And then there was the funk.

Other highlights of the evening included the title track of the new CD, “Copperopolis”, a complex piece which showed all three players to great advantage with its pulled out mysterious guitar notes, its pensive passages and jagged intervals. Derrek Phillips supported the extended guitar intro with sensitively unobtrusive drum and percussion work. John Ellis blew a beautiful bass clarinet, getting a full range of sound in pitch and dynamic from soft, deep and warm to clear and surprisingly high.

Gospel was a big presence in the second set. One piece, rousing and funky, started out as “Wade in the Water” and ended as “Down by the Riverside”. Somewhere in between, Derrek Phillips treated us to a revelation of a tambourine solo. This tambourine was no simply-shaken marker of time. This was a hand drum — with bells on.

This music is molten — flexing muscle, then twisting and squeezing through unexpected doors. There’s a taste for space, an angular modernity and abrupt breaks. It seems to manifest all or most of Charlie’s musical world — jazz of different periods and styles (even “Salt Peanuts” made an appearance), blues, rock, gospel and soul. But Charlie’s strongest suit on this night was rhythm and timing — of all kinds, even in his melodies. Oh yes, and then there was that great blues guitar I didn’t yet mention, and…

> www.charliehunter.com
We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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