Thursday, February 9, 2017

Charlie Hunter's Trio at Red Light Cafe Atlanta, GA

Carter McClean,  Charlie Hunter and Rob Dixon
Last night, February 8, 2017, the guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter and his trio brought his own style of blues, jazz, funk, ragtime and just plain fun music to the stage of Atlanta’s Red Light Café.  Located midway between Ansley Park, Midtown and Virginia Highlands, this unassuming, relaxed, crunchy little venue that seats about seventy was filled to capacity for this show.  It was good to see so many young faces in the audience and it was especially good to see a crossover artist of Hunter’s talent being warmly embraced by an Atlanta audience.

Hunter was born in Rhode Island and lived through high school in California where he took lessons from the great guitarist Joe Satriani. He moved to Paris when he was 18 where he is said to have learned the ropes of being a working musician. After returning to the States and performing in several groups as a sideman, he released his debut album the Charlie Hunter Trio in 1993 with Dave Ellis on tenor sax, Jay Lane on drums and Charlie playing a seven-string guitar. Hunter’s seven string guitar technique utilizes the top three strings as a bass guitar and the lower four strings as a standard guitar. He has developed a mind-blowing technique that allows him to play complex bass lines while alternately finger-picking melody and improvised solo lines and strumming rhythmic chording almost simultaneously. The guitarist had for a time experimented with a custom eight string guitar, but he has returned to a custom modified seven string guitar that suits his present multi-faceted style.

Hunter’s Let the Bells Ring On was one of my best of jazz 2015 picks in the Huffington Post and combined Hunter’s blues/funk/Americana approach with the trombone of Curtis Fowlkes and the drums of Bobby Previte. His latest album is amusingly titled Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth was released in 2016.

On this evening, Hunter was joined by the tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon and the drummer Carter
Mc Clean. Dixon has roots from Atlanta and went to Indiana University where he studied with David Baker. His resume included stints with bassist Rufus Reid, guitarist Fareed Haque and as a co-leader in a group with Wes Montgomery organist Melvin Rhyne.  McClean has worked with vibraphonist Roy Ayers, funk master Bernie Worrel-of Parliament Funkadelic fame- and Fred Wesley, a James Brown alumnus.  He also was the pit drummer for the Broadway show The Lion King.

The group had a telepathic connection as they ran through two sets of head-bopping music. They started the first set with Charlie’s “These People” from his album Let the Bells Ring On, with Dixon’s tenor taking up the part played on the album by Fowlkes bellowing trombone. Dixon had a deep, smoothly burnished tone that at times reminded me of Stanley Turrentine. Hunter for his part just amazed the audience with his dexterity and unfailing musicianship. He laid down some bass lines that for bass players would be impressive enough, but then he added a filigree of finger picked melodies on top of it all.  His technique is a descendant of the pioneering work of the great guitarist Joe Pass, an obvious influence, who would also play both bass and melody coincidentally. But whereas Pass limited his accompaniment to walking bass lines -admittedly on a six-string guitar- and impressive chordal comp work, Hunter has extended the complexity of his bass lines and incorporated a delicate finger picking approach unlike Pass’ pick and finger driven style. Hunter also incorporates some rhythmic strumming that has a flamenco feel to it and occasionally uses a delicate touch to produce harmonic overtones similar to virtuoso Lenny Breau.

Charlie Hunter
On this evening, the trio stuck to a mostly blues or blues/funk format that was expertly executed and grabbed the crowd with its accessibility, authenticity and emotional appeal. Hunter’s facility on his guitar at extracting the rawness emblematic of the old blues masters was palpable and audience approved. The trio ventured into the fusion-esque “Pho-Kus-On-Ho-Hokus” from the Let the Bells Ring On album and interplay between Dixon and Hunter was tight and crisp. Hunter and company often brought the song to an extreme tempest only to break abruptly into a calm oasis of sensitivity. A version of Terrence Trent D’Arby’ s funky “Wishing Well” was a crowd pleaser with McClean using a steel plate, xylophone-like apparatus on top of his tom to create an interesting effect. Hunter, who has a penchant for using period Americana pieces, then played a solo version of a classic Ink Spots 1941 tune “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” His sensitivity with this loping waltz was a high-light as he mouthed a few verses to his own sensitive accompaniment.

After a brief intermission, the band returned for a second set which started out featuring Dixon on a fiery saxophone solo, this time sounding a little like Lenny Pickett. Another nasty blues followed before Hunter went away from his blues-centric playbook and spontaneously started to play a Caribbean riff that had the band grooving in a mode reminiscent of Sonny Rollins “St.  Thomas.” The set was climaxed by a funky version of Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go for That” which had the whole audience grooving to the catchy song and which Hunter made into his own vehicle of expression.

For those who attended this show there was no lack of excitement and it was good to see the Red Light Café able to successfully bring in this kind of top quality entertainment into a neighborhood Atlanta area haunt. Let's hope this is the strat of a trend.

Here is the Charlie Hunter Trio from a live performance in NYC on December 30, 2016 with Carter McClean on drums and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone.

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