Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

7 September 1995

Beam Me Up, Charlie

Audience noise tends to raise jazzbo hackles. So it was hardly a surprise when testy Oakland guitarist Charlie Hunter interrupted his trio's September 6 CMJ showcase at Wetlands to complain about the "industry people" whose chatter marred the previous number's lyrically reflective mood. The irony of the tune in question being a fairly exquisite cover (in 6/8 time) of noted jazz composer Kurt Cobain's "Come As You Are" obviously made no nevermind to Hunter, who kicked serious musical booty from that point on.

Charlie Hunter, for better or worse, is the guitarist of the moment. The most visible member of the Bay Area's happening avant-jazz scene, he earned his postpunk and hiphop degrees with the cheekily volatile Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Today his music looks backward and forward, high and low, inside and out, with an emphasis on funky reanimated '70s pop-jazz. That his reputation rests on a gimmick or three detracts only slightly from his appealing work with his own trio, the guitar-based T.J.. Kirk quartet, and side projects. Hunter's recording career reflects his ascent. Where 1993's Charlie Hunter Trio was recorded for about a hundred bucks in Primus leader Les Claypool's basement, the new Bing! Bing! Bing! is a Blue Note joint.

Hunter's primary gambit/gimmick is an eight-string ax that includes three bass strings he walks and pops while picking out chords and solos on the remaining five. A beguiling, almost exasperating thing to observe, Hunter's unique style of fingerpicking resembles algebra equations set in motion. Hunter models both his technique and his sound on jazz organists like Jimmy Smith and "Big" John Patton, whose feet and left hands put bassists out of work; a specially designed amp generates tremulous Hammond tones. At age 27, however, Hunter's no grizzled pro, and you can still hear him working out the kinks; his bass lines, especially with the trio, are less than pelvis-putty fresh, and his solos sometimes sound constricted. "Open your wallet and spring for a bass player!" less tolerant listeners might be tempted to heckle.

With T.J. Kirk, however, Hunter is the bassist, and a good one. Served up like desert before the meat and vegetables of the Charlie Hunter Trio, Kirk could be the gone-fission rock reply to acid jazz's chilly disco restraint. The Shatnercentric moniker (copyright-infringing original band name: James T. Kirk) invokes Thelonious Monk, Rashaan Roland Kirk, and James Brown, whose compositions Kirk recombines into hybrid compositions such as "Ruby, It's a Man's World, My Dear" and "Cold Sweaty Panic."

Onstage, guitarists John Schott and Will Bernard danced hard to the deft grooves laid down by Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola. Schott's a spacy, atmospheric player whose psychedelic effects lend a transcendent Bay Area aroma to the band's exciting Warner Bros. debut, while Bernard's a fleet-fingered freestyler with a mean slide. Sort of a thinking person's Dread Zeppelin, T.J. Kirk ended its scrumptious set with a Zepped-out version of "Epistrophy" that alternated metallic peaks with cool-jazz valleys. Monk, no humorless coot, would, I suspect, have loved it.

On the other hand, I'm not even sure what I think about Hunter's trio. While Hunter and Amendola downshift nicely into playful, often exciting grooves, Berklee-trained tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis leaves me tepid. Too studied to dance to and too funky to ignore, tunes like "Thursday the 12th" and "Bulletproof" practically dare you to dismiss them as the derivative vehicles they are. But who wants to get on Checkpoint Charlie's bad side? "Goodnight, you fucking bastards," he said as he left the stage. "Especially you scum-sucking bastards from the record company."