Review: Charlie Hunter Trio – “Mistico”

Charlie Hunter Trio "Mistico"

Charlie Hunter is a jazz enigma. With each subsequent album, his sound does not evolve so much as it gets reinvented.

Of course, reinvention has been a dominant theme in Hunter’s music since the beginning of his career. For his 1995 release, his cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” sounded like a lost track from Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” sessions. In 1997, he had the audacity to record a track-for-track jazz reworking of reggae legend Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” album.

It should come as no surprise, then, that changes abound on the funky new Charlie Hunter Trio CD, “Mistico.” For one thing, Hunter has trimmed down his trademark custom 8-string guitar to only(!) seven strings.

Most noticeable, however, is that this is not the same Trio that performed under that moniker on Hunter’s previous album “Copperopolis.” This is the third incarnation of the Charlie Hunter Trio, with Simon Lott taking over on the drums and Erik Deutsch on piano and keyboards.

Hunter’s choice of using keyboards as a melodic counterpart to his guitar is a bold change from the usual saxophone sidemen of past releases. In fact, this is the first time piano or keyboards have played a prominent role on any Charlie Hunter Trio/Quartet/Quintet album.

Erik Deutsch is fully up to the task. His Fender Rhodes and CasioTone lend “Mistico” much of its distinctive retro flavor. The result is Hunter’s most unique sounding record since his 1998 love-it-or-hate-it paring of guitar and vibraphone on “Return of the Candyman.”

“Mistico” finds the Trio primarily grooving in a gritty, blues-funk mode, often adventurously treading into Medeski, Martin and Wood territory. Hunter’s bass-heavy, dirty/fuzzy guitar, paired with space-age synth sounds not heard since the days of Moog, gives the album its pervasive pulp-noir meets lounge vibe.

The CD kicks things off with “Lady!,” a jazzy guitar and piano blues number with a melody reminiscent of early Tom Waits. As the backing synths slowly sneak in, it becomes clear that this record is far from unplugged. Lott’s propulsive rhythm kicks things up a notch on “Speakers Built In,” with Hunter and Deutsch trading 70’s style rock riffs on their respective instruments. Similarly, “Balls” has a decidedly Steppenwolf-strut about it.

The Trio brings the funk on tracks like “Wizard Sleeve” and “Drop A Dime.” The frenetic, shifting tempos on the curiously titled “Spoken Word” create something more accurately described as the musical equivalent of slam poetry. Meanwhile, “Special Shirt” alternates psychedelic-pop, à la an Austin Powers soundtrack, with jazz piano, à la Thelonious Monk.

Things do slow down occasionally. The title track has the spacey sound of “Dark Side” era Pink Floyd. “Estranged,” with its haunting piano, awash in reverb, seems to channel Vince Guaraldi at his most sorrowful. It’s like the soundtrack for a Peanuts special in which an adult Charlie Brown drowns his sadness over never winning the love of the Little Red-Haired Girl with gin and tonic.

There’s no doubt “Mistico” is musically a long way from the Charlie Hunter Trio’s eponymous 1993 debut. But over the course of more than a dozen albums and countless side-projects, it is that very kind of reinvention that has helped Charlie Hunter remain one of the most exciting artists in jazz today.

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This review originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of TC Style magazine