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.

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