Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dueling Guitars: John Scofield and Charlie Hunter

Nothing brings me more pleasure than listening to two musicians who are still growing as guitar players. Case in point: Charlie Hunter and John Scofield. Both players have recently released new albums that are interesting to the ear, full of energy and in the groove.

The title of Charlie Hunter’s new album, Everybody Has A Plan Until You Get Punched In The Mouth (GroundUp Music), is a quote from Mike Tyson, the former boxer, who uttered the phrase to explain what it was like to face an opponent in the ring. For Charlie Hunter, it is perhaps a nod to how one deals with adversity in one’s career, although I think Hunter has little to worry about. He’s one of the finest guitar players of his generation. His unique finger-picking style is completely suited to his 7-string custom made guitar that grants him the ability to play bass lines simultaneously with melody and chords. His technical dexterity is so seamless, he sounds like two musicians. But after a while the novelty of the technique wears thin because it’s a means to an end. Making good music becomes the order of the day. On Hunter’s 20th album, his first in many years with his original quartet, the guitarist seeks a groove and for the most part he finds it with this new album of original tunes featuring Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, and Bobby Previte plays the drums. The album is basically an off-the-floor jam session. What we hear is a really tight band full of energy and humour. Highlights include the title track, “Big Bill’s Blues” and “No Money No Honey.” Sometimes music doesn’t have to have a point to make to be successful and yet “Who Put You Behind The Wheel” is the perfect track that requires a little thinking as you groove.

I’ve been listening to John Scofield since the mid-eighties when he played with Miles Davis. I was surprised to learn that he started with Chet Baker ten years earlier. His sound and his approach to guitar playing have evolved over the years, but more importantly his compositions have been a combination of be-bop, funk, swing and country. Scofield’s new album Country For Old Men (Impulse!) is an exploration of the latter while staying close to the jazz idiom with which he’s most familiar. To him, country isn’t as far removed from the jazz world as one might expect. Consider the Texas Swing bands of the forties as the source. Country For Old Men kicks from the first note to the last thanks to the contributions of his long-time band mates, Bill Stewart, drums, Larry Goldings, organ and piano, and Steve Swallow, bass guitar. This is a band in complete technical control of their instruments grounded in the wisdom of many years' playing on the road and in the recording studio. Like Charlie Hunter’s group this is a seasoned band that nearly reaches musical perfection. For this record, Scofield covers music by Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Shania Twain and Merle Haggard. The album title reflects the bandleader’s age, 64, and Steve Swallow's, 75. Goldings and Stewart are not yet 50. Nevertheless, the album shows no sign of a band of old men; it’s fresh, inventive and full of soul. Highlights include “Jolene,” “Mr. Fool,” “Just A Girl I Used To Know” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” A kick-ass rendition of “Red River Valley” is also included.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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