Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nouveau Retro: Charlie Hunter Trio

Baboon Strength, the latest offering from Charlie Hunter, is a most curious CD. If Hunter was ever a "jazz" guitarist, he certainly doesn't demonstrate any of the characteristics one would associate with that description on this record. As soon as I started spinning it, I realized that I would not be evaluating this recording from a jazz perspective, even if I accord the genre a wide definition (which I do). Ain't nothin' jazzy about this music at all. And that's fine. Its an instrumental pop record, so I'll review it as such.

I find myself vacillating between boredom and a grudging admiration for the album's insouciance. My first impression of Baboon Strength was negative; I thought the writing was vapid, the bass playing weak, and the overall vibe of the record rather somnambulistic. When I read that Hunter plays a 7 string guitar, I was duly impressed that he plays bass lines with his thumb and everything else simultaneously. But that circus trick doesn't override the glaring sameness of many of the tracks.

Nice grooves, yes. Tony Mason is a great pocket drummer. Maybe this record ought to be under his name since the drums are mixed hotter than anything else on every track. Keyboardist Erik Deutsch "brought his 1970s Yamaha combo organ, Casiotone and Echoplex" to the session, according to Mr. Hunter's entry on his website. That adds up to some psychedelic sounds which live primarily in the roller rink zone. I did enjoy the Sun Ra-ish sounds he used on the title track, a boogaloo with a theme right out of a 60's detective TV show.

As I listened, the music started to grow on me, the way that certain Top 40 tunes get under your skin through repetition. I stopped listening for awhile and then came back to it. I wonder who this CD is for, besides the guitar geeks who must surely be wowed by Hunter's ability to play bass, rhythm and lead simultaneously. The music is not progressive in any way; there's no heavy improvising; they're not pushing against any particular musical boundaries. This group is a band in need of a strong vocalist or horn player to give the music a focus. Some of the grooves remind me of John Mayer's Trio, whose live CD Try is a far more successful project. Mayer's well-crafted tunes, plus his strong singing and playing, provide that band with a powerful organizing force - just the thing that's missing from Baboon Strength.

A batch of "decent songs" (as Hunter calls them), played with these old school funk grooves ala Booker T and the MGs does not a satisfying musical experience make. Here are three musicians making music that somehow adds up to less than the sum of their talents. This music functions well as quasi -ambient, low - impact background sound, if that's what you like. It feels very good, but doesn't sound like much.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008



The jazz hype machine (such as it is) went into overdrive earlier this year over Esperanza Spalding, the infuriatingly young and highly skilled bassist/vocalist/composer. She had features in Down Beat and Bass Player magazines, a nice piece on NPR, guest shots on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live etc. It is the kind of attention that many older, more obscure jazz musicians resent, often to the extent of ignoring an artist like her altogether (think Diana Krall).

Fortunately for Ms. Spalding, the quality of her work on this eponymous CD is outstanding in every way. I don't even care that she's young and attractive; no, not one bit of bitterness on my part. Not at all. I'm just thrilled that I got to use the word eponymous.

Anyway, this accomplished young musician composed nine of the twelve tracks on the album. Most of them have a latin-ish flavor; a couple are in odd or mixed meters. There's only one tune that has a little bit of straight ahead swing feel. The tunes are all well crafted, harmonically interesting and rhythmically strong. Some of the lyrics are a bit over the top sentimental for my taste, but that might just be the only indicator of Spalding's youth.

A majority of the tunes are bass-driven, which makes sense, given that the composer is a powerful bassist. It is easy to hear why so many heavy players have said positive things about her playing - and why she is on the Berklee faculty at such a tender age.

Last but not least, Esperanza can sing! She sounds effortless; she has a great sound and range; she sings with ease in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Here's a little slice of a few of the tunes on this wonderful CD:

Jazz and Poetry

Image from Kay Lovett's Fine Art gallery

As a jazz musician who grew up in the final third of the 20th Century, my exposure to the "golden age" of jazz-oriented poetry was pretty limited. When I've thought of jazz and poetry in the past it always brought to mind images of beatniks, berets and bongo drums. In fact, Maynard G. Krebs is the visual I get even now when I think of the Beat Generation. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lenny Bruce, marijuana and heroin all blend together for me in the kind of highly stylized way that only ignorance can produce.

I've only recently begun to delve into poetry again, after a long sojourn in the land of prose. It has been a lot of fun discovering new stuff as well as revisiting old favorites like Rumi, Neruda, Bly, cummings et al. I've even gone to a few readings of local poets here in Chicago. If you've never gone to a poetry slam or a reading I highly recommend it.

Apparently there is still a strong tradition of connection between the two disciplines of jazz and poetry. There is poetry that uses improvisational forms, poetry about the music and/or the musicians, poetry that is read or created in the context of the music. When it is good, it can be very satisfying, especially to those of us who like things to have both sound and meaning.

One place I've started to check out online is the e-poets network. The site has a nice variety of contemporary written poetry, as well as audio and video clips of poetry performances. Of particular interest to me is their collection of "jazz in words". Curator Kurt Heintz has put together a section of the site which, in his words:

"lists artists whose work addresses jazz, or whose work has been influenced significantly by jazz, whether that's in historical or contemporary modes. Jazz and performance poetry have a long, entwined history from the mid 20th Century to today."

As I read and listen to some of this work, the mental cliches are starting to fade. Funny how a little knowledge and experience challenges one's prejudices.

Modern Blues Harmonica

Blues harp is not my favorite thing. Traditional blues in general doesn't really do it for me as a genre. But when I stumble across someone who does it so well that the style is irrelevant I know there must be something special going on.

Blues harmonica virtuoso Adam Gussow is one of those people. He is half of the duo Satan and Adam, an award winning scholar and associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He has posted a series of thorough and enlightening videos on YouTube, among many other things.

Adam offers what appears to be a well-thought out approach to playing the blues on his excellent website Modern Blues Harmonica. If you have an interest in this music, as a player or listener, I urge you to check it out.