Concert review and photos: Charlie Hunter makes his guitar sing and swing at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, June 23
Amendola’s drum set, only slightly off to the left of center, was turned not towards the audience, but to face Hunter directly, whose bench sat open near the center of the stage. This set-up already foreshadowed a night of unified grooves and reciprocated provocations between the duo as they revealed their chemistry together.
Resting on the bench was Hunter’s signature seven-string guitar, a custom made piece by Jeff Traugott. Traditionally, Hunter had played with an eight-string, created by Ralph Novak of Novax Guitars, but he found the top string to be cumbersome to use, and after modifying his original guitar, favored a new design. On both guitars, the design is apparent from the beginning. Rather than featuring strings of the same length from neck to bridge, they’re mounted diagonally at each end, allowing Hunter to make use of two bass strings in addition to five lead guitar strings on a single, relatively narrow neck. It requires a slightly different playing style, which is illustrated by the frets that run not parallel to each other, but fanned outward as the strings get lower. This design enables Hunter to play the bass line, and both rhythm and lead guitar parts simultaneously.
The show started as the duo slinked stealthily through the crowd and took the stage, unnoticed by most, until Hunter took up his guitar and played a simple, test riff. The mood was set even before the music started, as the guitarist demonstrated a witty rapport with Jazz St. Louis staff during his introduction. He immediately opened up the night with a walking bass line set to a swing rhythm, and after a brief intro to set the tone, he tucked in his lower lip and demonstrated why he’s been wowing crowds for two decades.
While the music is certainly supplied by his nimble fingers, anyone that’s seen Charlie Hunter play can attest that the show is in his face. As he improvises his tunes, bounding between riffs and breaks, Hunter exhibits an array of facial expressions. Sometimes they’re deeply committed to the groove, but often they feature goofy grins and other playful expressions, well complimenting Hunter’s quirky and humorous style. It’s not at all uncommon for his gaze to pick out a member of the audience, and challenge them to a staring contest until he claims victory through laughter, and then proceeds to the next target.
The set featured a variety of styles, only further compounded by the multiplicity of styles within each song, as the duo built from funk, swing and blues grooves to add unexpected flavors, such a western guitar solo and disco bass breaks. The 10 song set balanced Hunter’s compositions with covers of some standard show tunes like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Whatever Lola Wants,” and included a few improvised groove sessions as well. Often, the songs would transition to higher energy parts with grunts and exclamations from Hunter, and end with a high five and handshake between the performers.
The highlight of the show was the mid-set segment, where the musicians opened up with more banter and humor. There were a few moments where Hunter would go back and forth with audience members, discussing song titles that he had wrong because he never learned the words, and even the history of some musical techniques. He commented that he’d potentially be chastised as a heretic for playing jazz during the baroque era.
The mid-set banter lead into an improvised tune, lead by Amendola. Hunter told him to play “whatever you want” and he couldn’t have been happier. With a smile akin to a child at Disney World, Amendola opened the song with a freeform segment, skipping between sections of his drum set with constant transitions. The intro built in intensity until it resembled a march rhythm and Amendola became a one-man drum line. Once Hunter joined in, they seemed to dare each other to step up the tempo and test the other’s ability to match the intricate cadences they presented.
The show concluded at the peak of its energy. Hunter turned to Amendola and shared, “People like fast music. I don’t like fast music, but people like fast music. Play fast music.” The two musicians demonstrated their skills one last time as many audience members rocked in their seats and struggled to keep from tapping along on their tables.
Hunter concluded the show with the same humor that was exhibited throughout the evening by playing with the on/off switch on the microphone, breaking up his speech like a poor drive-thru speaker. He noted, “I’ve always wanted to do that,” and the duo left the stage.
All photos by Wil Wander.