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Layin’ it Down: Songs from the Analog Playground by the Charlie Hunter Quartet

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The Birmingham Public Library has, luckily, a respectable catalog of jazz recordings, I’ve taken to dropping by occasionally to broaden my horizons. Generally, my selections predate my own interest in the music, if not my existence. Last week however, I picked up the latest from Charlie Hunter, released last year – young enough to merit a review, I feel.

Musically, Songs from the Analog Playground evokes jazz-funk and soul-jazz/boogaloo, but cleanly and often using a bop template with constrained space for solos. (Courtney Pine has managed similar references without sounding dated.) Hunter, an 8-string guitar virtuoso, is able to carry both basslines and melody, which is fortunate because an additional electric bass would leave the record heavier on funk and lighter on jazz, and an acoustic vice versa. Hunter’s fretwork interplays with the tenor saxophone of John Ellis, at points to emulate horn lines (as in the song Rhythm Music Rides Again). At other points his guitar work briefly calls organs to mind (Run for It). The versatility of this outfit is part of its appeal.

Ellis is by turns soulful (Day is Done) and energetic (Run for It), but doesn’t freelance. So, the songs stay where they belong, in the groove. And how groovy, thanks to two percussionists: Stephen Chopek on the kit and then some and Chris Lovejoy on the congas and still more. (The two have their own record, and Chopek is now on tour with John Mayer.) The album’s myriad percussion instruments and rhythms are showcased on the remarkably tight Percussion Shuffle. Each member of the quartet is credited with playing the agogo bells.

Fitting then that Mos Def should incorporate Brazillianesque vocal stylings into the opener, Street Sounds, which references Carnival with its name and rhythmic layers. The rapper also appears on the song Creole – as a soulful crooner. His convincing, irony-free delivery alternates with some of Ellis’s best playing on one of the album’s simplest yet strongest cuts. A two tone (long, short) counterpoint underscores the track and unmistakably calls to mind Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue opener So What.

Three other guest vocalists deliver two songs each. Norah Jones offers the best by far. The promising young vocalist renders Roxy Music’s More than This as a beautiful, soft samba and closes the record with Nick Drake’s Day is Done. New Orlean’s music vet Theryl de’Clouet of Galactic lends his strong pipes to Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Mighty Mighty and Willie Dixon’s Spoonful – using a cooler delivery the latter song, which Cream covered.

If I can give or take de’Clouet’s blues contribution to…Analog Playground, Kurt Elling’s beatnik rant Desert Way is downright distracting. Elling’s unique poetry-slam/scat-singer crooning would have fit right in on Roy Nathanson’s story album Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill. Here, however, it feels misplaced. This isn’t a remarkably coherent record, but the beat-poet bit still seems dated alongside the dominant ’60s and ’70s references. Elling’s punchy take on the bebop standard Close Your Eyes is, however, more at home. One reason may be the percussion refrain – agogo bells – that surfaces on this and several other tracks. Rhythm music rides again, indeed.

Ultimately, the album’s instrumentals are what hold my attention. Hunter and company manage to jam with a relaxed air, but the arrangements are tightly knit. The melodies meander but return to touchstone refrains, and the ever-present percussion drive them onward.

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