March 2011

Charlie Hunter
Public Domain

Since emerging in the ’90s with a string of successful recordings on Blue Note, guitarist Charlie Hunter has placed his signature eight-string voice into a wide variety of settings—duos, trios, quartets, quintet and sextet. This one harkens back to an obscure self-released project from 2000, Solo Eight String Guitar. The brilliant conceit on this new solo offering is to use tunes that have been around long enough (70 years) that their copyrights have expired. Clever way to cut overhead, but these wonderful old songs—handpicked by Hunter’s 99-year-old grandpa—are also part of the collective consciousness of Americans. And Hunter does them proud.

Hunter’s unique gift, documented on 22 albums over the past 17 years, is his uncanny ability to lay down deep-toned, grooving basslines while simultaneously comping rhythmically and layering single-note melodies and improvisations on top. Now utilizing a custom-made seven-string ax with two dedicated bass strings, five regular guitar strings and separate inputs, he can convincingly simulate the sound of two or three musicians playing together. It’s an incredible circus feat to behold, but Hunter also happens to be a remarkably deep musician who is devoted to the tradition of his instrument in all of its applications: blues, folk, rock, reggae, country and jazz.

He handles the Roaring ’20s anthem “Ain’t We Got Fun” as a nasty blues shuffle and treats “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Irving Berlin’s first hit, from 1911) as a funky New Orleans-flavored groove number. His gospel-tinged, slow-as-molasses take on “Danny Boy” is a revelation, while his jaunty interpretation of “Meet Me in St. Louis” (a nugget left over from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair) is his attempt at emulating ragtime guitarist Blind Blake. “Low Bridge Song (15 Miles on the Erie Canal),” which dates back to 1905 and was subsequently recorded by Pete Seeger and Sons of the Pioneers, is given a distinctly African treatment here, and “Indiana” is turned into a loping blues shuffle in Hunter’s hands. His deliberate reading of the post-World War I number “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm” becomes a Professor Longhair-inspired rumba boogie, and his dirgelike interpretation of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is full of catharsis and toe-curling licks.

Hunter generates plenty of sparks and chills on this jaw-dropping, no-frills offering.

Originally published in March 2011
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