Add “Let The Bells Ring On,” the Charlie Hunter Trio’s newest release, to a long list of records that see guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter work with excellent musicians and play for the sake of music rather than themselves.
Hunter teamed with noted trombone player Curtis Fowlkes and drummer Bobby Previte to deliver the stripped-down new album. Hunter certainly has been wading in a pool of talented musical collaborators since he started recording in the early 1990s. He learned guitar from master teacher Joe Santriani and played in Michael Franti’s political rap group the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Since his self-titled debut album in 1993, he has also gone on to co-found jazz fusion band Garage a Trois, with drummer Stanton Moore and saxophonist Sherik, and has contributed tracks on pivotal albums for artists like D’Angelo (“Voodoo”), John Mayer (“Continuum”) and Frank Ocean (“Channel Orange”). His accomplices on “Let The Bells Ring On,”Fowlkes and Previte, have been just as social with their musical peers and were integral members of the New York City jazz scene of the 70’s and 80’s, with Fowlkes playing in both The Lounge Lizards and the Jazz Passengers.
The collaborative spirit of the three musicians really is the foundation of “Let The Bells Ring On.” More singular musicians would have been too tempted to imprint themselves all over the simple structures of the songs, like a giant signature on a table napkin. Hunter, Fowlkes and Previte left their mark on the album by supporting each other rather than their own egos, adding musical parts where it was called for and leaving space where it was needed.
This sentiment is encapsulated wonderfully on the opener “Anthem USA,” which is probably sparser than most tracks that bands choose to open an album with. But it ushers us into the trio’s minimalist sensibilities very well. The song trudges along to a lonely beat from Previte and sludgy flourishes from Fowlkes, along with stark notes from Hunter, create a palpable tension in the tune. But by letting the air breathe between its notes, the group is able to release the tension with a crisp melody that pops up when you don’t think you can take the dreary atmosphere anymore.
Contrasting aesthetics can also be found on “Those People”, where Fowlkes’ low brassy solos seem to come into contention with the high, sweet rhythm guitar from Hunter, and the vulnerable “Vernal.” On the latter, the guitar and trombone move in contention with one another over Previte’s gruff drums. But as the song continues, Previte begins to add tickling fills to his drumming as the guitar and trombone warm up to each other. The animosity unravels like a spool of thread.
Since the album is filled with such structurally basic songs, one would think Hunter’s talented playing would be stifled. But the frenetic “Hillbilly Heroine Chic” proves that just is not the case. His morse-code-quick fretwork proves Hunter’s virtuosity as it glides seamlessly from riff to improvisation. But his pocket playing works within the space of the song, matching the dizzying drums and jittery trombone. It is also false to believe virtuosity is measured by notes per minute. Hunter’s unwavering and simple rhythm guitar on “Welcome To Nutley,” which is notable for being the only song to see the band tackle a more conventional, rhythm based song, is perfect for the feeling the band was driving home.
Hunter is very accomplished in his playing, but as “Let The Bells Ring On” shows, he might be even more accomplished in knowing which musicians to play with so that the music is louder than any one musician.
Editor’s note: The Charlie Hunter Trio appears July 2 at the High Sierra Music Festival
Charlie Hunter Trio
“Let The Bells Ring On”
Label: Charlie Hunter Music
Release: June 9, 2015
Notable Tracks: “Hillbilly Heroine Chic,” “Welcome To Nutley,” “Vernal”