Guitarists who don’t waste notes are a rare breed. They’re even rarer in the world of jambands and summer tours, which is where Charlie Hunter made his mark. As you would expect from a guy who tacked on a couple of extra strings to bolster the low end of his six-string model, groove is his thing. In doing so, he invented his own style of music, equal parts jazz, reggae, funk and vintage soul. And he can be hilarious. His latest excellent, characteristically eclectic album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched is streaming at Spotify. Hunter and his fantastic quartet have a two-night stand coming up on March 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $15. The last time this blog was in the house there, they weren’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum, a good thing since Hunter’s crowd is more likely to smoke than get wasted on the Rockwood’s expensive drinks.
The album opens with the title track, a slow, comfortable swing blues with a characteristically wry, bubbling Curtis Fowlkes trombone solo; then cornetist Kirk Knuffke signals that all may not be so cool after all. Drummer Bobby Previte’s emphatic, tersely swinging slow triplet groove anchors the second track, Looks Like Someone Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication, which opens with an amusingly woozy voicings from Fowlkes and Knuffke, then takes a detour to New Orleans before the meds kick in again.
Staccato horns add spice to Leave Him Lay, a mid-80s Grateful Dead style blues fueled by Previte’s swinging, almost disco drive and Hunter’s spiky, Bob Weir-ish chords. We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent is an uneasily swaying midtempo noir theme, like Big Lazy with horns and a long, purposefully crescendoing blues solo from the bandleader. Then Hunter gets even more retro with Big Bill’s Blues, ostensibly a Big Bill Broonzy homage. beginning starkly and then shifting into jubilant Crescent City territory with some artful counterpoint from the horns.
The darkly simmering soul theme Latin for Travelers is a vehicle for a contrastingly bright solo from Knuffke and then Fowlkes, dipping down to just the horns and then back for extra dynamic punch. No Money No Honey is as hard as the funk gets here, although it’s more of a swing tune: everybody in the band, especially Previte, is having a ball with this one.
Who Put You Behind the Wheel opens as a spaciously tiptoeing, Asian-tinged excursion, then morphs into reggae, with a trick ending. The looseness and freeness of Wish I Was Already Paid and On My Way Home mask its relentlessly dark, distantly klezmer-tinged undercurrent . The album winds up with the jaunty, dixieland-ish second-line march The Guys Get Shirts. This works on every level, as first-rate jazz, blues and psychedelia.
Without Shahzad Ismaily, this review would not have happened. Not knowing that reservations were required for Marc Ribot’s concert Saturday night at the New School, we showed up without them, and the door crew, expecting a sellout, turned us away (which actually wasn’t unreasonable: by showtime, there were still a few open seats, but the auditorium was pretty close to capacity). Overhearing us kvetching outside and plotting our next move, Ismaily came to the rescue (he doesn’t know us; we’d never met before) and comped us in. So now we know that Shahzad Ismaily is as good a guy as he is a musician. His bass work was as inspiring as always, an effortless mix of fat, slinky, swingingly tuneful riffs and vamps while Ribot and his nine-piece noir orchestra prowled and snarled seductively overhead.
Marc Ribot may be famous for being able to play in any style ever invented, but the chameleonic guitarist has found his niche. He’s never sounded more articulate, or been able to interpolate all the things he does best – menacingly twangy atmospherics, frenetic noise and tersely slashing blues – as entertainingly and irresistibly as he does with his noir soundtrack stuff. Among the material on this cinematic-themed bill were pieces of the soundtrack to the noir films Scene of the Crime and Touch of Evil along with a selection of noir (and noir-influenced) instrumentals by the Lounge Lizards, John Zorn and Ribot himself. It was creepy, and sexy, and intense to the point that by the end, pretty much everybody including the band seemed pretty exhausted. The best New York concert so far this year? Arguably, yes.
One of the night’s high points was a John Barry scene titled Kill for Pussy, from the Body Heat soundtrack, tinkly piano and sultry/deadly Doug Wieselman alto sax over a relentless, brooding pulse that took on a slightly less menacing, more lurid tinge as it progressed. The other was an insistent, galloping Ribot chase scene, the slasher going in for the jugular, spinal cord, skull and everything else within reach in a frenzy of horns and atonal tremolo-picking. His Strat drenched in reverb, Ribot turned a noir cabaret Andre Previn tableau from Scene of the Crime into chilling southwestern gothic, later leading a tongue-in-cheek parade through a reggae version of a Henry Mancini piece lit up by Curtis Fowlkes’ triumphant trombone. The Lynchian midsummer night scene that opened the show vamped on a couple of chords as it shifted almost imperceptibly from suburban gothic twang to a mutant Stax/Volt blues and back again lushly with the strings going full tilt. A John Zorn piece from the 80s burned through an explosion of horns, a chase scene, some Chuck Berry and then reggae, all in three minutes. The rest of the show mixed twisted striptease themes with an evil marionettes’ dance, a cover of the Get Carter theme done as Herbie Hancock might have circa 1971, and a couple of Lounge Lizards tunes: an early one that saw Ismaily walking crazy scales as the band squawked, screamed and shuddered, and a later, much quieter piece that marvelously built suspense, from apprehension to something more like sheer terror. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of this amazing band, which also included John Mettam on drums, vibraphone and bongos; Christina Courtin on viola; Christopher Hoffman on cello; Rob Burger on acoustic and electric piano and organ, and a violinist whose name we didn’t catch.
The Jazz Passengers’ new album Reunited – their first in over ten years – is as nonchalantly cool as anything they’ve ever released. Saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s cinematic compositions are as imagistic as ever, imbued with his signature wit, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes every bit the vintage soul crooner, both on the horn and the mic and vibraphonist Bill Ware his understatedly counterintuitive self. Violinist Sam Bardfeld, bassist Brad Jones, drummer E.J. Rodriguez and guitarist Marc Ribot channel their signature out-of-the-box arrangements, melodic pulse, slinky latin groove, and eclecticism, respectively. Much of this has an early 70s psychedelic feel, from the brief period where soul music, funk and jazz got to mingle unmolested before fusion came along and busted up the party.
Elvis Costello sings the opening track, Wind Walked By, a casually strolling noir-tinged New Depression era swing tune: “Shit out of luck, the American way.” Ware’s vibes eerily anchor Nathanson’s alto sax, Ribot’s guitar supplying a distant unease, swaying from nonchalant blues to off-center skronk on the outro. Seven, an instrumental works a hypnotic circular motif like an early 70s Herbie Hancock soundtrack number, Fowlkes and Ribot’s wah guitar building suspense up to a violin/guitar swirl. Fowlkes sings Button Up, a matter-of-fact soul/jazz groove, wah guitar mingling with Ware’s expansive, deadpan, bluesy cascades. Thom Yorke’s The National Anthem trades midnight Heathrow airport corridor atmosphere for 4 AM Ninth Avenue Manhattan drama – with Ribot and then Bardfeld skronking and screeching behind the aplomb of the rest of the crew, it’s every bit as menacing as the original. The best single song on the album might be Tell Me (by Fowlkes/Nathanson, not the Glimmer Twins), dark latin soul morphing into a buoyant 6/8 ballad, the warmth of the trombone silhouetted against the plinking thicket where Ware and Bardfeld are hiding out.
They redo Spanish Harlem as laid-back organ-driven swing with an amusing Spanglish skit, Ware, Fowlkes and Rodriguez joined by a whole different crew including Russ Johnson on trumpet, Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola and Susi Hyldgaard on vocals. There are also two bonus live tracks with longtime collaborator Deborah Harry. Think of Me, a Brad Jones/David Cale composition is lusciously restrained Twin Peaks swing. And who would have thought that she’d sing this 1995 concert version of One Way or Another (redone here brilliantly as Brat Pack-era suite) better than the original – or for that matter that she’d be an even more captivating singer in 2010, as recent Blondie tours have triumphantly shown. The only miss on the album is Reunited (the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop monstrosity), which pulls plenty of laughs in concert but misses the mark here: garbage in, garbage out. You could call this cd the comeback of the year except that there’s nothing really for them to come back from other than a long absence – which is happily over now. Last month’s shows at the Jazz Standard saw them clearly psyched to be back in action again; hopefully there’ll be more of it.
The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.
Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.
Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.