The Charlie Hunter Quartet

Live at the Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA - Fri, June 7, 1996

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By Jenny Fenster

The Great American Music Hall is indeed a hall, in the truest sense of the word. A great, gold, high-ceilinged hall, full of nooks and crannies that resonate with sound, as well as emanating a deep and historical warmth. It is not unlike a baroque church--one that happens to share a block in a seedy part of San Francisco with a strip club and a liquor store--which has survived a San Francisco hippie-music renaissance and now provides micro-brews to a multi-cultural audience.

RealAudio of the Concert

The Great American Music Hall went through several reincarnations developing into its present form. Although notable for its frequent visits from hometown artists like the Grateful Dead since re-opening as a music venue in 1972, the Hall has been home to the likes of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Cash.

The Hall is crowded this evening, people warm with the closeness of this intimate space and the mutual anticipation of Charlie Hunter's music. It is a place which has frequent occasion to draw a varied crowd, and tonight is no exception. There are young people, and others who look as if they might be their parents. In the rear of the hall, covered by a polished oak dance floor, smartly-dressed professionals mingle with young deadheads in tattered jeans, the smell of cologne colliding with the scent of patchoulli. There are people here who may not "look" as if they listen to jazz, in any conventional sense, and yet it is safe to say that the majority of the people here tonight have not only heard of Charlie Hunter, but are devoted fans of his music. It is a new age for the San Francisco music scene, and a new age for jazz.

The San Francisco Bay area has produced a colorful history of jazz artists. This modern batch, which includes young musicians such as Charlie Hunter, Joshua Redman and Peter Apfelbaum, are keeping that long tradition alive. Following in the footsteps of the traditional artists, each is yet recognized for producing a contemporary and individual sound.

Apparent in all of Charlie's compositions are his many different influences. This adds an element of accessibility to his music which helps account for his range in audience members. Growing up "the son of hippies," his musical repertoire includes almost everything his parents didn't listen to. Among the noticeable influences on his three albums are George Clinton, Nirvana, and John Patton, whose organ-playing is a sound Charlie skillfully duplicates on his guitar. That his shows are often patronized by "hippies" is an irony not lost on Charlie who, from his vantage point on the stage this evening, can surely see them spinning at the back of the room.

The Charlie Hunter Quartet is a big, room-filling sound. The addition of an alto saxophone to the original trio has created a wealth of new opportunities and trajectories for this group of musicians, who, over the past few years, and within many different configurations, have developed a devoted home-town following.

Charlie seems to be very pleased with the current configuration of band members, with whom he shares not only musical sympathies but an obvious simpatico. Though rejecting the suits and ties of the neo-traditionalists, they are serious jazz-men, but also young men with a profound sense of wackiness and a love for what they do. One senses that they are here to have fun, and their on-stage enthusiasm is contagious.

Scott Amendola, on drums, is a man accustomed to wearing a fez. A member of one of Charlie's other on-going projects, T.J. Kirk, he is schooled in Charlie's stylish take on the works of Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His constant smile seems to be a reflection of intense concentration, his head and shoulders bowed over his kit except when making a moment of eye contact with Charlie. Together they feed the rhythm section (Charlie's eight-string guitar includes three bass strings), and have been seen to slide a little skin after a particularly good jam.

Calder Spanier, on alto saxophone, has an almost balletic way about his playing. He seems to pour his entire, lithe body through the mouthpiece of the instrument. At the peak of a stream of notes, he is literally up on his toes, reaching, straining to push out every last drop of emphasis.

Kenny is smaller, mellower in style; his shaven head, goatee and heavy-lidded look betray a rich and emotive sound. With every note seems to come every ounce of oxygen from his body, which is hunched and bent into a series of curves somewhat resembling those of his tenor saxophone.

The two horns complement each other, exploring different sides of a running, leaping, tiptoeing theme. The quartet leads us through Latin beats, slow, deep contemplations, and swinging, finger-snapping grooves. We are introduced to the "Shango," Charlie's imaginative, self-ascribed "bogus" addition to that genre of music known to spawn a dance craze. As he plays "Shango Part 3," from his new album, one can detect a not-imperceptible swaying of the hips, along with a slight back-and-forth shuffling of the feet.

If sound itself had five senses, the quartet would be tickling all of them. Each composition is like a story, carefully scripted and unfolding with precision and creativity. It is a complex layering of melodies and variations, and yet its effect is simple, meticulous, harmonious.

Charlie closes out the set by announcing that the quartet will play a few numbers from his upcoming cover album of Bob Marley's "Natty Dread," to which the crowd responds with cheers and whistles. As they launch into a swinging version of "Lively Up Yourself," there are yelps from the balcony. A Tennessee Waltz intro becomes a beautiful rendition of No Woman, No Cry," a solemn and soulful tribute featuring an extended cameo of Charlie's guitar-playing.

Back To Index As Charlie holds the stage alone, one cannot help but notice that he is the driving force behind this group of musicians. It is he who never fails to delight us and surprise us, and it is his unique sound and the compositions in which it flourishes which bring us back again and again.