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Published: 2007/09/23
by Josh Potter

Altitude – Grandtruther feat. John Medeski

Altitude – Grandtruther feat. John Medeski, Thirsty Ear
Mistico – Charlie Hunter, Fantasy Records
When the kids on the street said, "less is more," Charlie Hunter cooly inquired, "how much less can you handle?" Then, it seems, he stripped the highest string from his signature Novax eight-string guitar, assembled two power trios, and proceeded to slap together a pair of wildly-distinct yet barn-burning albums.

Mistico, a solo release, finds Hunter on the flip side of a spell in which the shockingly conventional six-string guitar had become his bread and butter. His time with the Coalition of the Willing has left a bit of growl in his tone and a take-no-prisoners mentality in his song writing. Most tracks still bear that off-kilter, thoroughly New Orleans bump we’ve grown to expect from previous projects, but include a new sensibility that rocks just a little bit harder. No doubt, the groove is still there, it’s just taking us places we might not have previously expected.
In addition to the instantly-identifiable wonky leads and rhythmic tomfoolery, a new dimension has opened up in his song craft. "Speaker Built In" may best exemplify the shift. Building from a classic, sunny-day stomp, the tune endures several stark changes, propelling Erik Deutsch’s CasioTone keyboard to the upper texture, and launching a climactic coda reminiscent of the Duo. It’s huge and proggy, but, most of all, astonishing due to it’s simple foundational elements.
While the presence of anthemic rock in jazz music is growing less irreverent with age, Hunter seems more concerned with the tangible results of his latest project than its implications. Mistico is a jazz record built for 2007, replete with a dynamism to rival similar efforts by the likes of the Bad Plus and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Even while tracks like ‘Wizard Sleeve,’ and ‘Mistico’ call to mind detail work on the side of a 1974 Chevy van, this is not an album of quaint cover songs. The former is an utterly original romp through a Lord of the Rings pinball machine; the latter, an eerie, graffiti-rendering of a hoodoo trance. Deutsch routinely hovers on the periphery of the tune before slicing Hunter’s lead with piano, Rhodes, and distorted effects. Meanwhile, drummer Simon Lott picks away from the bottom. With ‘Balls,’ a huge, bluesy theme gives birth to a spare, pointilistic drum solo. ‘Spoken Word’ hits hard and then retreats. It’s a drum vehicle that features Lott’s clever fills in counterpoint to a Hunter lead so sleazy it simmers like caucasion flesh at the beach.
Groundtruther, however, is a whole different animal.
Ground truth: cartographic or meteorological facts gathered in an actual field check to verify those recorded by satellite image.
If there’s one thing that Groundtruther is not, it is speculative. Following 2004’s Latitude with saxophonist Greg Osby, and 2005’s Longitude with DJ Logic, the addition of ivory-poacher John Medeski to the core line-up of Bobby Previte (drums, electronics) and Hunter (electric and acoustic [!] seven-string guitar) not only rounds out the Groundtruther trilogy of terrestrial exploration, but proves to be some of the most adventurous improvisation to emerge in any of these three giants’ respective catalogs. Like the titles under which these pieces fall, this is music of the rocks and the sod, subtle as the tectonic plates, inexorable as the Himalayas.
To call Groundtruther a collaboration is to miss the point. There was a time when three jazz musicians of this stature could form a band and not have to distinguish between the host and the guest. True, one member may have received primary billing for their hand in composition or to drum up record sales based on name-recognition (and if any one of the three aforementioned asserts himself most forcefully on the record, it may actually be Medeski) but Groundtruther is something entirely other. Groundtruther is less an actor than an action. Altitude, more phenomenon than theme. The freak-out seems to be over, and these three have crossed to the other side. Having been set ‘free’ long ago, this is music that, in wandering, has forgotten who it is and from whence it came. Conventions have been shed and all has returned to primordial soup.
"Above Sea Level," the electric half of the the two disc meditation, may smack, at times, of MMW’s "The Dropper," but only in the satellite image. Medeski’s organ occasionally flirts with horror/sci-fi themes, as on "Pyramid of Giza," but is by no means the focal point of the track. On the ground, few tunes ever establish a melodic fulcrum, opting instead for ductile motifs as complex spatially as they are harmonically. Ideas are the smallest material building block here, and they trickle in from all directions. Bereft of true "solos," showmanship and virtuosity are not the driving MO. At times it seems as if the three have shed all considerations of technical mastery for a basic aesthetic sensibility, and it turns out that this may be the greatest mastery of them all. Elements of restraint are employed with mutual acuity to those of liberated freeplay, and this is where Groundtruther slips through the parameters of band or collaboration to attain true spontaneous form. Never free for the sake of being so, these tracks are composed in the manner of an expressionist painting, with the fierce innocence of a fingerpainting toddler. Each of Prevites strokes constellate themselves in Hunter’s unusually dissonant, droning guitar, while Medeski wraps the whole ensemble together, lathers, rinses and repeats.
It’s as if the dropper has fallen from the shelf and now lays shattered on the kitchen floor. The ten-minute "Seoul Tower" is the sole reminiscence of the bump and wobble most would expect from the trio, as a general throb has come to replace their hallmark groove. And then we breach the surface…
"Below Sea Level" might as well be an entirely different ensemble. Strictly acoustic, this is the lo-fi step-brother to Altitude’s first disc, and if it seemed that the trio couldn’t strip their playing closer to its molten core, this may be the very magma. Soaked in a natural reverb that seems the product of one small recording space, all is in the name of ambiance. Sonic haiku’s and tone poems slither out from a place somewhere between John Cage and Steve Reich to assemble themselves like sculpture in the desert. With Previte relying on singular percussive elements, often a dull piece of wood or metal, the rhythmic role is shared by the rest of the ensemble. Medeski explores the piano’s origins as a percussion instrument, and Hunter plays as if the same were true for guitar. Adding vocal drones and chanting, these tracks are nothing short of primeval. They rarely exceed four minutes in length, and like the notes therein, their ephemeral quality makes the fact that they exist that much more striking.
This is music that points to nothing more than itself. The convergence of three purely intuitive minds, the sound pulls itself from the Cambrian muck of its own volition. Nameless and evading of taxonomy, Altitude rises and then falls with the fossils, saps you of your last drop of liquid and sends you blinking out into the day.
If simplicity can sound epic, then here it is. All hail: the year of the power trio.

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