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Charlie Hunter: Friends Seen and Unseen

When Charlie Hunter chose to play not just a guitar but rather an eight-string monster that allows him to be both the guitarist and the bassist in his trio-well, he sure put listeners in a tight spot. Because Hunter’s so busy playing both rhythmic and melodic roles, his music often has a stilted groove, and the stop-start rhythms are hard to get a handle on. I usually end up thinking he should just hire a bassist. But if he did, well then he wouldn’t be Charlie Hunter, would he? It takes a superjaded cynic to not marvel at what Hunter’s hands can do. I’m sure that for many, part of the pleasure of hearing Hunter play comes in part from the knowledge that his talent is unique.

Hunter’s new Friends Seen and Unseen finds him working with reedist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, a pared-down trio version of the group on Hunter’s last CD, Right Now Move. Once again, Hunter has problems getting his band out of the box, rhythmically. The album’s 10 songs all move along in a similar fashion, with lots of that stop-start action, and many instances of Hunter and Ellis trading some seriously twisted lines. Those melodies can also be tough to latch on to, but they’re the kind of deeply cerebral lines that prove more and more rewarding as the album progresses.

Thankfully, Ellis employs tenor sax, bass clarinet and-best of all-a flute, which varies the album’s sonics and saves the album from sounding like one long song. And there is that mind-blowing feeling that comes from hearing Hunter simultaneously solo and keep time. The solos are lean on emotion, and the bass lines are largely by-numbers, but how the hell does he create them both at once? Two brains, folks. He must have two brains. Don’t call on Hunter to get a groove on; Friends confirms that Hunter’s music is music for the thinking man.

Originally Published