Highly strung

Jazz byRichard Cook

Charlie Hunter plays an eight-string guitar, which makes him a rare bird to start with. Big Joe Williams used a nine-string instrument, and there have always been numerous 12-stringers about, but Hunter's guitar is built for fingers dexterous enough, basically, to do two things at once: play bass and lead. As a one-man show, it's maybe not that different from what organists do, bouncing out the bass lines with their feet on the pedals, but it can still be startling to hear the juicy resonance of the bass parts mixing with the purling melody lines and realise that Hunter is doing it all with two hands.

Hunter exemplifies where the jazz guitarist has to go today. He's probably no more inventive or imaginative than any of his predecessors but he has certainly heard more and has the chops to play with greater proficiency than most of his forebears. Just as modern athletes are compelled by progress to make themselves faster and stronger, so must the performer in a virtuoso art set himself an ever more formidable level of achievement. Hunter's a jazzman, but he can play anything in rock that he wants, and among the originals on Duo (Blue Note), his newest record, there is the Beach Boys chestnut "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)".

Hunter emerged a few years ago from the San Francisco Bay area, traditionally a place where musicians can spend a lifetime jamming, and he simply runs across borders and categories as he pleases. One of his earlier albums was a complete retread of Bob Marley's Natty Dread album, fashioned to an aesthetic of hip instrumental rock with enough improvisational blood in it to keep jazz sympathies settled. It may have been merely a clever way to market a talented player, but Hunter at least gave the impression that he'd thought the project through.

Like such contemporaries as Bill Frisell and John Scofield, Hunter seems ready to hang his hat anywhere, but he's been helped by the gradual disappearance of the rock guitarist as existential hero. While the likes of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are still just about standing, they're more like well-rounded family entertainers than axe-toting gunslingers. When jazz players such as Wes Montgomery crossed over into smoothly commercial pastures in the 1960s, they were vilified for selling out to Mammon. These days, a guitarist is more likely to provoke bewilderment if he doesn't put himself about as much as possible.

While Hunter has fronted several entertaining groups of his own, Duo is a straightforward dialogue with drummer Leon Parker (whose own albums for Columbia have been as catholic as Hunter's). This isn't sketchwork, but it's very bare bones. Rather than the kind of demonic interplay that some have sought out of this kind of situation, each man plays calmly and generously, Hunter embellishing his uncluttered melodies while Parker sets a direct pulse with the minimum of elaboration. The guitarist resists the temptation to employ lots of different tones and settles for a sound that Montgomery might have recognised. When he drops in a bopper's quote at the end of "Do That Then", it's like an affectionate nod to a vanishing language. The one dramatic bit of recasting comes in "You Don't Know What Love Is", which is given the kind of ghost-train vibrato that leads back to Dick Dale and Duane Eddy.

Hunter's dilemma, though, may lie in the very facility with which he moves through these idioms. He's so comfortable in all of them. The dragons that were slain by his noble forebears have left the realm free and open to wander in. But who is he going to joust with?

Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker play the Camden Jazz Cafe, 5 Parkway, London NW1 (0171-916 6060) on 18 July

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?