Charlie Hunter’s Fun-Loving Run for the Accessible

Michael Konigsberg
El Vaquero Staff Writer

Charlie Hunter thought he would tear your head up. He needs to get real and wake up to the interesting half of his album.

“Songs from the Analog Playground” lands just off-center from where the hep-cat innovator made his mark. Hunter and his quartet (formerly trio) came up the last decade in smoky jazz clubs and festivals as the unappreciated stepchild of “traditional” be-bop Ö la Miles Davis and alternative rock music.

The earliest fans of these playful misfits even resembled Kurt Cobain rather than Cliff Huxtable. What was so exciting was music coming out of the cracks that had hardly any bounds but the limits of imagination and taste. Where Hunter’s eccentric eight-stringed bass-ranged guitar nimbly, funkily brought lounge rhythms of old into the present, former Primus drummer Jay Lane laid in punk party punch percussions. Creative fun. And yet, Hunter’s update takes his talented collective one step back to a grown-up’s imagination deficit.

Most of “Analog” is not bad. In fact, it’s quite good. We couldn’t expect more professional, tighter jams. But the jazz of jazz – that essential inventor spirit from space – plays in a dark corner of these sessions like a frustrated child prodigy. Hunter ought to snatch that genius instrument of his away from his idea of how cool cats (down-) play and put it back into the gut-bucket thumping that you strain to hear in his ability.

Energy is the greatest element in “Analog.” For all the group’s somewhat-restrained sets, they never lose newa certain octane level that makes jazz the improviser’s bag. “Run for It” pulls a mean little kitten out of that bag, a kitty who loves to rip the bed spread and play havoc in the kitchen cupboard when you’re away.

New drummer Stephen Chopek whacks with the right steady up-tempo to John Ellis’s tenor sax sass mouth; together, they just beg for Hunter’s eight-string to step in with a good scolding.
“Sunday Morning” is as golden-sweet and fleeting as its namesake, leaving only the impression of lazy memories on guitar. In just a matter of time, it slips away into the Norah Jones-voiced cover of Roxy Music’s “Day is Done.”

Jones’ and the others’ vocals are the first ever with the quartet. Entertaining these angels unawares inspires some games so fabulous on the “Analog Playground” that one wonders if Hunter and his cohorts weren’t just suffering an instrumental slump. The opening “Street Sounds” shakes and shimmies along with R&B prophet Mos Def, who here takes his cues from James Brown. Theryl Clouet adds husky soul to his ever-lovin’ “Spoonful.” Favorite crooner Kurt Elling shares some of his most precise syncopation, stretched out by scat, on the legend of “Desert Way.” Yet, Jones has the only woman’s touch on the album. She is first breathy and then dead-center on tone, a soft and sultry lavender core, on `Day’s” trip-hop rhythms of ended pleasure.

“Day’s” sun sets gently the good intentions of Hunter and friends. Just hopefully, these cats will reach a crisis of faith and rebirth before their next effort. Any group with a song called “Mitch Better Have My Bunny” can’t have all the game beat out of them yet.