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Published: 2004/09/30
by Brian Gearing

Latitude – Groundtruther featuring Charlie Hunter

Jazz collective Groundtruther's choice of album and song titles on their new release, Latitude, suggests a combination of Jimmy Buffett nautical truisms, drunken beach bum tales, and Bahamian calypso jazz raves, but thankfully for eight-string guitar phenomenon Charlie Hunter, Groundtruther is built of sturdier stuff. Partner in crime and beatmaster Bobby Previte and saxophonist Greg Osby have tossed Hunter a sturdy rope of experimentation and improvisation and pulled him out of the lounge-jazz cess-pool he’s been wallowing in with his trio for the last few years, and the threesome manage to wipe off the stink even while sludging through dark, muddy beats and filthy guitar and sax riffs, and they still show up at the Captain’s ball smelling like freshly cut roses on a sunny morning on the quarterdeck.

Fully live and improvised, Latitude is a follow-up to Hunter and Previte’s previous collaboration, Come in Red Dog, This Is Tango Leader. The new release continues the same formula of Previte’s programmed beats and samples layered with Hunter’s guitar and bass explorations, this time with Osby’s atmospheric sax thrown into the mix, but while Come in Red Dog was still mainstream enough to stand alongside Hunter’s previous work, Latitude delves into deeper waters, focusing more on ambience and mood than virtuosity and melody. Moving from "North Pole" through the "Equator" and down to the bottom of the earth at the "South Pole," the three-man crew plows through both the calm, serene Caribbean seas and the violent, stormy North Atlantic, and neither weather map nor radio can predict its course or what might come on its journey.

The USS Latitude starts out on the icy, desolate wastes of the "North Pole" with only an erratic orchestra sample and a temperamental high-E string to keep it warm, but as the sounds become more erratic and Osby’s saxophone wanders above deck, the trio finds itself maneuvering through jigsaw ice flows and fighting off wandering glaciers. When they finally pass through the "Arctic Circle," Hunter and Osby lock in, and Previte’s booming low-end gets the ship cruising through smooth, open waters. The eerie calm of "40th Parallel" builds to a disconcerting rumble as the threesome approaches the "Horse Latitudes North," whose migraine-inducing repetitions roil the stomach and send the head spinning into a dark, underwater nightmare somewhere beneath the churning surface of a haunted cruise ship manned for the winter season by Jack Nicholson and Olive Oyl.

As soon as the hellish storm is in full-force, however, it begins to pass, and the warm, tranquil breezes of "Tropic of Cancer" blow through the metallic leaves of urban palm trees in the concrete jungle of this strangely urban tropical island. Previte's almost danceable breakbeats support some dexterous, if relatively amelodic soloing from Hunter and Osby, and as the party quiets toward dawn, Groundtruther finds itself with its toes in the sand and a drink in its hand, relaxing to thick, steady headgrooves on a beach somewhere on the equator.

The ocean calls, however, and the crew is soon sailing southward again, this time through the "Tropic of Capricorn," whose latitudes are equally peaceful, if a bit more organic than its northern counterpart. Storms rise again in the southern "Horse Latitudes," easier on the stomach and the head, but equally stormy, as Osby and Previte's counterpoints are a little too dissonant to enjoy, even with the cheery, late-song detour down memory lane.

The "Tropic of Calms" starts out as expected, with Previte's walking bass line moving steadily over glassy seas as Osby's sax fills the clear, salty air on the afterdeck, punctuated only occasionally by bright organ-like flourishes from Hunter's eight-string. Something wicked lurks under the calm surface, however, and the bassline's purposeful strut falls into stumbling, unsteadiness as it stalks down whatever tranquility might lie just above the waves. As the Latitude crosses the "Antarctic Circle," Osby provides the most jazz moment on this free jazz journey, as his hypnotic riffs warn us of the impending danger while Hunter and Previte lull the sailors to sleep with a steadily plodding bass thump. Osby leads the ship through dangerous waters, however, anticipating the end of a long but fulfilling journey, and as the Antarctic sun rises on another icy, frigid "South Pole" morning, there is a calm in the air that is at once calming and fatalistic.

Latitudes is an adventurous trek for those willing to face the risks of uncharted musical journeys. The two captains, Hunter and Previte, and their guest of honor, Osby, are more than willing to set off without map or compass, and while Groundtruther’s unguided wanderings often lead them to frightening destinations, the end reward is an eye-opening voyage that could never be charted by a cartographer. Much like Odysseus and all those after him, the winds of the gods are both kind and cruel to this trio, but in the end, even the darkest moments are their own reward.

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