Saturday 20 January 2024

Charlie Hunter & Leon Parker - 'Mean Streak'

How dey do dat? How do two such laid-back musicians sound at the very least like a trio? Well, I suppose it's what happens when the world's coolest jazz guitarist teams up with the coolest and most tasteful of drummers.

Part of the answer to the conundrum is Hunter's custom-made eight-string Novak guitar, which allows him to pick out his remarkably phat bass lines while playing the melody simultaneously. Apparently Ralph Novak's guitar has special frets and separate signals for the guitar and bass elements. But it still has to be played, and the video allows us to study Hunter's remarkable technique, playing the bass lines with his thumb and fretting with the index finger of his left hand, while he plays the single notes and chords with the other four fingers of his right hand and frets with the other three free fingers of his left hand. That's the literal description, but it doesn't quite explain how his brain copes with the two disciplines at the same time, something which I suppose piano players have to do all the time, but which my scrambled brain finds hard to comprehend. My daughter would call it a brain-fff... (Shut yo mouth!).

The other part of the answer lies with Leon Parker, who is a rare creature in that he is a drummer and percussionist at one and the same time – rather more like a Latin-jazz drummer in that respect, someone like the esteemed Horacio 'El Negro' Hern├índez. Here he starts off their communion on congas before switching seamlessly to the kit drum, which he plays as if wanting to tickle its tom-tom rather than bash the living hell out of it. The left-hand rimshots combined with the right-hand cymbal-work when they start to really take off at around the minute-and-a-half mark is discretion itself. Soon after four minutes, with the guitarist comping the bejayzus out of his Novax, Parker launches into one of the most musical drum solos you'll ever hear this side of... I must stop beating on about Joe Morello's solo in 'Take Five'.

This meeting of Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker dates from a live appearance in 1999 on Aqui y Ajazz, a bilingual English/Spanish web/TV magazine curated, if that's the appropriate word, by singer Chiqui Rodriguez and dedicated to promoting jazz and other genres all over the world.

The pair of them only made one album as a duo – in the same year as this performance was recorded – but my, it's a good one: the appropriately entitled Duo is a mini monument to good taste. Parker stayed with the guitarist for Hunter's eponymous follow-up with a bigger group (for most of the tracks). But two albums together is probably the limit for a restless musician like Hunter. A native of the San Francisco area, his mother repaired guitars for a living, which presumably had an effect on young Charlie. He studied at Berkeley and took guitar lessons from the semi-legendary Joe Satriani. After honing his technique by busking in Paris, Hunter teamed up back home with his friend Michael Franti, aka Spearhead, in Franti's polemic group, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, responsible for such gems as 'Television, The Drug of The Nation'.

He began his jazz career proper with Charlie Hunter Trio in 1993 before being snapped up by Blue Note for seven albums that concluded with Songs from the Analog Playground in 2001, which saw him collaborate with other Blue Note artists like Norah Jones and Kurt Elling. With more than 50 albums on his c.v., mainly under his own name and partly in joint ventures like T.J. Kirk, Groundtruther, Victoria Victoria, Hunter's latest project has seen him teaming up once more with the great jazz singer, Kurt Elling, as SuperBlue. Charlie Hunter certainly doesn't stand still.

By contrast, Leon Parker's discography is more like his drumming: less is more. He started playing the drums at age three, but unlike so many drummers he didn't seem to be bitten by the urge to make the kit bigger and better. Instead, he scaled things down to the extent of playing sets on just a bass drum, snare drum and cymbal. Had he been a prog-rocker, he'd have been laughed off stage. While Charlie Hunter was honing his craft on the streets of Paris, Leon Parker and his flautist wife spent 1989 playing throughout Spain and Portugal, so I guess you wouldn't want to carry around anything much more cumbersome than a cymbal.

Whatever the differences in approach, the two of them work beautifully together. Charlie Hunter said that what he looked for in a drummer was a 'perfect blend of the visceral and the intellectual,' and Leon Parker would seem to supply that in spades. It's a shame they only made two albums together, but perhaps they would have lost with over-familiarity that freshness and sparkle so evident here. The guitarist always quotes Joe Pass as his biggest influence on guitar, but what he and his drummer achieve on 'Mean Streak' and indeed the whole of Duo is something in the spirit of Kenny Burrell's after-hours masterpiece, Midnight Blue. When it comes to cool, you can't get much cooler than that.

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