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Published: 2001/11/21
by Ray Hogan

Sounds From The Analog Playground – Charlie Hunter

Blue Note Records 7243 5 33550 2 9

Count me among those who thought the idea behind Charlie Hunter's
eight-string guitar was better than what it produced. With his custom-made
axe, the Bay Area-based Hunter used two separate signals to play bass and
electric guitar simultaneously. While it never sounded like a gimmick or
novelty, I never saw much purpose in one guy doing two men's jobs and wasn't
overwhelmed with my limited exposure to his music.

"Sounds from the Analog Playground" has changed all that.

His seventh disc for the esteemed Blue Note jazz label (check their ads in
the current jazz journals and you'll find just as many of their acts playing
rock halls as jazz clubs; a sign of the times indeed) has Hunter recording
with his team of tenor saxophonist John Ellis, percussionist Chris Lovejoy
and drummer Stephen Chopek for the first time. Perhaps more importantly, it
also marks his maiden voyage with singers in his recorded career as a
bandleader.

Rapper Mos Def, Galactic's Theryl de'Clouet , Kurt Elling and Norah Jones
lend their talents to two songs apiece which, along with five instrumentals,
makes for a disc that is fresh and exciting from start to finish. Each
singer turns in such a strong performance that it's hard to say one works
better than the other with this quartet.
On the instrumental tracks, the percussion heavy quartet plays exciting
contemporary jazz. The New Orleans veteran Ellis emerges as a featured
soloist more than Hunter. His style is fluid, melodic and informed heavily
by tradition with slight hints of bebop. He and Hunter dance gracefully
above the rhythmic bed on Rhythm Music and the strangely titled
Mitch Better Have My Bunny.

There's a delicate balance between nearly sentimental melodicism and urban
rhythm that takes the disc to great places. Mos Def, a rapper from the
artful and innovative Native Tongue school, kicks off the disc with
Street Sounds, a rhythmic exercise where his voice dictates the pulse
as much as the percussionists.

Galactic's de'Clouet has been on a roll lately. His "The Houseman Cometh" solo debut was a welcome reminder of the glory of New Orleans' R&B golden age. He is no less supreme here, wrapping himself in the lyrics of Earth, Wind and Fire's Mighty Mighty as if they were his own and milking more emotion than was thought to have existed out of the overplayed blues standard Spoonful.

The ubiquitous Elling adds his trademark improv/scat to Desert Way.
It sounds disjointed at first but makes more sense with additional listens.
He adds a different approach to "Close Your Eyes," which is very similar (if
not exact) to the opening Street Sounds. Elling brings a hep cat
approach to the form but loses in comparison to Mos Def's more urban cool.
Def shows another side on Creole, where he sings soulfully over a
modal pattern that vaguely recalls Miles Davis' So What at first.
Vocally, it's hard to compare him to the competition on this disc but it's
an honest effort and better than most of today's pop singers.

The real find here is Jones, who recently signed to Blue Note, also home to
Elling. She's got a gorgeous set of pipes – kind of like if Edie Brickell
sang jazz. On the lush More Than This, a song originally recorded by
Roxy Music, she proves that no style of music is better than jazz for
balladry. She's no less sublime on the closing Day Is Done. With
crystalline delivery, she has enormous potential.

"Sounds from the Analog Playground" is a tremendous effort. With a
combination of challenging instrumentals and collaborations with gifted
vocalists that fall more towards the pop realm, it has the potential to
appeal to an extremely wide audience – and ignite bickering and/or confusion
from fans of each of those camps. Plus it's an introduction (at least to me)
to Jones, who's likely to become the next great jazz chanteuse.

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