Charlie Hunter is known for playing well-known rock songs in trio form, and making them relatively unrecognizable. He’ll alter the chord changes; he’ll add an intricate, “outside” solo on the guitar or the organ (or on Dave Ellis’s tenor saxophone, in the case of his 1995 album Bing, Bing, Bing!); he’ll change the groove from a driving backbeat to a loose swing. And yet, there’s a grinding pulse to Hunter’s music that appeals more to rock music fans than to jazz heads – albeit rock fans whose tastes skew more sophisticated and soulful than what you would hear on a Nirvana or Green Day album. Charlie Hunter is more in the vein of Led Zeppelin: textured, Middle Eastern-sounding harmonies; soaring bridge sections; solos that build on the song’s melodies, rather than just improvise on changes.
His recent date at Yoshi’s – two days and four sets with drummer Tony Mason and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, to celebrate the trio’s latest release, Baboon Strength – drew a lot of people who might have been more comfortable in a venue where they could, you know, smoke weed and dance in the aisles (a couple guys danced in the aisles anyway). It was a rock concert wedged into jazz concert format, but struggling to be both at the same time. Deutsch and Hunter clearly have phenomenal jazz chops, though Mason, with his aggressive solos and driving backbeats, appeared to be the main star. Hunter’s audience seemed at times a little flummoxed by the format, but enthralled nonetheless.
It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Charlie Hunter. The forty-one-year-old Berkeley High School alum and former Michael Franti collaborator (in the experimental band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) seems completely at ease with himself at all times. He took the stage at Tuesday’s 10 p.m. set in a sweatshirt and jeans, played an exhilarating set of about eight songs with virtually no talking in-between, opening plenty of space for Mason and Deutsch to show off their chops (Deutsch’s organ solos were one of the big highlights of the night – he’s clearly studied up on gospel and honky-tonk, and is really good at signifying a particular period or style). Hunter played a custom-made guitar with seven or eight strings, allowing him to pluck out the bass and guitar lines simultaneously. He’s so accomplished at this technique that he really does provide the illusion of an extra person onstage – any audience member who hadn’t yet read the Wikipedia definition of Charlie Hunter was probably glancing around anxiously, in search of the missing bass player.
Hunter tends to play the head of a tune straight the first time around, and then take liberties with it. The first half of his set sounded a little jazzier, featuring original tunes that most people in the audience seemed not to recognize. Hunter often yielded the spotlight to Deutsch, so the group sounded more like an organ trio than a jam band. But midway through, they decided to ratchet things up with two rock covers – the Beatle’s “Back in the USSR” and a tune from a Johnny Osmond record. The Beatles song featured a rousing drum solo during which Hunter and Deutsch played a heavy bassline in tandem (Deutsch had a whole arsenal of keyboards at his disposal, including what looked like a small Casio and a full-size with an effects-maker). Mason’s solos were hard-driving and combative, but technically simple – it occasionally sounded like he was riffing off Bo Diddley beats. That they elicited the most applause of the night gives some indication as to what type of audience was in attendance.
But there’s no question who the real star was. Despite his rather unassuming stage presence, Charlie Hunter is a phenomenal player with chops to burn. He’s accessible but enigmatic, both a technically rigorous jazz musician and a rocker who’s listened to a crapload of Beattles (especially late-period albums like Revolver). Whenever he soloed Deutsch and Mason back, Deutsch sipping a bottle of San Pellegrino water, both with expressions of rapt admiration. Hunter often soloed on pentatonics, playing licks, building up to something, and then ending on a chord that sounded just a little off. Listening to him is like listening to a coloratura soprano who is trilling her way up to some very high note that is supposed to be the big payoff, except that when it finally comes she things it just a hair flat. The end result is intentionally rough and unpolished, but in a way, that roughness adds to its luster. Not to mention that Hunter’s amazing seven-string guitar made the group sound bigger and fuller than it actually was. Ultimately, that’s the best thing about watching the Charlie Hunter trio at a medium-sized club like Yoshi’s: You get the wallop of a rock band, and the looseness of a jazz trio.
Charlie Hunter playing “Oakland”: