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Down a String, Up a Notch

Eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter does some of his most experimental work yet with a mere seven.

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Charlie Hunter Trio

WHEN Sun 9/30, 7 PM

WHERE Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

PRICE $25, $21 kids and seniors

INFO 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401

With his inventive musicianship, Charlie Hunter has earned respect from the jazz crowd, cheers from rockers, and reverence from jam-band fans--all the while dumbfounding guitar geeks and gearheads with his corpus callosum-defying ability to play a melody and a bass line simultaneously on his custom eight-string instrument.

Throughout his extraordinary career, he's stayed a moving target, hard to pin down. In the early 90s, critics and publicists painted his first trio recordings, featuring drums and sax, with the acid-jazz brush. But in his subsequent group Pound for Pound, with gifted vibraphonist Stefon Harris, he set pure jazz dancing cheek-to-cheek with glorious funk, even on a cover as unlikely as the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle." In 1998 he founded the shape-shifting co-op Garage a Trois with drummer Stanton Moore of the jam juggernaut Galactic, and in 2001 he released Songs From the Analog Playground, which included a parade of top-notch vocalists, from Kurt Elling to Mos Def. On the infectious 2003 album Right Now Move, his short-lived quintet presented a magnificently sweaty front line of sax, trombone, and harmonica steeped in New Orleans rhythms.

At 40, Hunter shows no signs of abandoning this vagabond spirit. Without a doubt the most experimental of his projects is the frequently exhilarating and occasionally bewildering duo-plus-one called Groundtruther, with drummer and composer Bobby Previte. The two have created a trilogy of albums for the intrepid Thirsty Ear label, each featuring a different guest musician. Their exotic soundscapes, aggressive tone poems, and whirling free-form improvisations, perched between jazz and electronica, have provided Hunter and especially Previte--whose own projects, emphasizing his compositions, tend to be a lot more buttoned up--with an opportunity for nearly untrammeled expression. And the guests who've joined them have likewise relished the chance to stretch out in directions they're not used to.

Hunter and Previte put out Latitude in 2004 with saxist Greg Osby and Longitude in 2005 with DJ Logic, the most adept among those turntablists attempting the thankless task of fitting their work into this sort of creative music. Altitude, which came out this week, took a little longer to get here, but it runs a little longer too: it's in fact two discs, "Below Sea Level" and "Above Sea Level," which at last bring keyboardist John Medeski into the mix. I say "at last" because anyone following this project's arc should have seen Medeski coming: in Medeski Martin & Wood, the preeminent jazz-jam band, he's regularly ventured away from the groove and dipped his toes into the murky subterranean pools that Groundtruther has plumbed so deeply.

For "Below Sea Level" the group unplugs--Hunter sticks to acoustic guitar and Medeski to acoustic piano, and Previte shelves the electronics he uses on the other discs. The music has a correspondingly airy, spacious quality, though it'd hardly qualify as delicate or pretty. The 16 short pieces are wildly eccentric in wildly different ways, resisting any easy description. "Three Haikus," a miniature suite totaling about a minute and a half, recalls the music of the long-running acoustic fusion group Oregon, specifically in Hunter's brittle lines and brushed-nylon tone and Medeski's sparse, high-volume interjections. "Submarine Canyon" settles into a groove built on a Turkic pattern from Hunter, framed by Previte's military drumbeat and galvanized by a dervish piano riff--this is Medeski's meat, and he digs in with both hands. On "Cold Seep" the trio throws in extra percussion, some vocalized groans, and a ton of reverb, mov-ing from Oregon to some hybrid of musique concrete and Alban Berg. And "Mariana Trench"--at nearly eight minutes the longest track by far--strikes a Middle Eastern note, as Medeski's melody line and left-hand accents lines echo the majestic North African landscapes of Randy Weston.

The tracks on the electric disc, "Above Sea Level," take their names from such notable protuberances as Everest, the Empire State Building, and Kingda Ka (reputedly the world's tallest roller coaster, located at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey). The trio comes ashore at "Taipei," at four minutes the shortest cut here, and throughout the disc navigates more familiar territory--swirling Hammond organ, electronic bass lines, the moody slash of solid-body guitar--in long-form improvisations that allow the players to unbottle the exuberance they reined in on the first CD. "Pyramid of Gaza" references the early electric music of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock--Bitches Brew and Mwandishi, respectively--while the ten-minute "Seoul Tower" reaches back even further, to the mid-60s, for a sort of surf-rock-on-acid feel. And a tune called "Warsaw Radio Mast" uses synths, guitar effects, and drum electronics to create a 21st-century gamelan--it's nearly impossible to tell by ear who's doing what, but I hear percussive gongs, samples of mallets on metal, and what sounds like one very sour steel pan.

Up till now we haven't had much chance to hear Charlie Hunter like this. Freed of the need to supply all the bass lines--Medeski handles them often enough, and I imagine some even come from Previte's electronics--he gets to play front man, his soaring leads feeling the gravitational tug of a full-time accompanist. Hunter still loves to use reedy timbres that trick people into hearing an electric organ where there isn't one, but here, combined with Medeski's keyboards--an actual Hammond organ, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and even an ancient mellotron, granted another reprieve from obsolescence--his tone becomes part of an occasionally orchestral palette that helps these tracks shimmer as well as shimmy and shake.

Whether this change in Hunter's role has something to do with his new instrument I can only speculate. On the previous Groundtruther discs, and even as late as last year's Copperopolis (Rope-a-Dope), a sax-and-drums trio date, Hunter still used his famous eight-string guitar, playing bass lines on the bottom three and improvising solos on the other five. Since then, though, he's switched to a seven-string model. Even with the rest of Groundtruther to lean on, he still regularly uses the bottom three strings as an electric bass, sending their output through a separate speaker. I have to think that the loss of that treble string makes a difference up top, though: a five-string guitar is a slightly disabled version of the standard instrument, but with only four, Hunter's ax has melodic capacity more in line with that of viols and violins, whose four-string configurations have shaped Western as well as Indian classical music for centuries. That's not to say Hunter has suddenly started to sound like Beethoven or Brahms--only that I expect the foreshortened range to require an adjustment in approach.

I also can't make a call yet as to whether Hunter's experience in Groundtruther will leave a mark on the trio he leads under his own name--if anything, it seems to have provided an outlet for ideas that didn't fit into his other projects, and I haven't seen much crossover. But the latest disc from that trio, this summer's Mistico (Fantasy), does have something in common with "Above Sea Level"--in this version of the group, Hunter employs a keyboard player in the core lineup for the first time, which lets him hand off the bass lines to somebody else once in a while. This is the band Hunter brings to the Old Town School on Sunday, with drummer Simon Lott and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, and Deutsch's phalanx of acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizer helps the group approximate the denser textures of Altitude. With identifiable actual "tunes," the keen-edged, tough-minded Mistico rocks harder than the new Groundtruther. It seems like Hunter can play this sort of material by intuition alone, without self-consciously pushing himself in one direction or another the way he does with Previte.

Hunter's affinity for funk rhythms, his voluptuous guitar sound, and his ability to rework the hothouse melodicism that John Scofield introduced to jazz in the late 70s--either stripping it down or complicating it--have persisted in his playing through every version of his trio. I doubt that he would, or even could, move away from those elements of his style, even if his next disc abandons keyboards altogether in favor of alphorn or a chorus of flutes or--perish the thought!--a bassist. But as with most moving targets, we'll have to trace his trajectory after the fact.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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