The Jazz Universe Inside My Head

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Charlie's New Trio

Charlie Hunter Trio

Last June (I didn’t want to say it but I will – it was 6.6.06 – the DAY of that ‘ol devil) I walked into the 8X10 down in Baltimore and was blown away by a fresh sound that I a-third-of anticipated. Charlie Hunter was there but the rest of his usual trio, saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was drum-destroyer Simon Lott and keyboardist Erik Deutsch.

Throughout the years, maybe since ’98 for me, Charlie Hunter shows had always been right on, but somewhere the trio got too good. That’s usually not a bad thing, I’ll admit. For Charlie’s sake though, I always thought that he was too outstanding to become a contemporary act - something that was enjoyed but expected. I wanted to see some daring turn and on that night in the Charm City I got my wish.

The driving force behind this new big bang is drummer Simon Lott. Ask anyone who’s heard the new trio and they’ll tell you the same thing. At that show last June I watched him and Charlie channeling. The end result was the finest show I’d heard out of the amazing guitarist in recent years.

I caught up with Simon before the trio’s gig at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA on April 14 to talk about the trio, amongst other facets of his life.

Me: How did you get to be playing with Charlie and Erik?
Simon: John Ellis recommended me for the gig. I had played with Erik a couple of times beforehand.

When I saw you guys for the first time down in Baltimore at the 8X10 Club last June I was blown away by your energy (seriously), the way you and Charlie fed off each other, and just the whole band. I was like, where did these guys come from?
Baton Rouge!!!!!!!!

What's it like playing with Charlie?
It’s a whole different experience!! Haven’t played with anyone quite like Charlie.

I loved Charlie's old trio but I felt like they were so comfortable playing with each other that Charlie needed a new challenge, a new approach to the tunes…a new way to write music. Together, you guys sound so fresh and hungry. I'd have to say that I think this is the best trio he's had. How do you feel about the way that you guys are melding?
Well thank you. I like what we’re doing: there’s a serious pocket and lots of colors. Haven’t really heard a group doing what we’re doing: grooving this hard, but still getting really creative.

One thing that amazes me about you, Erik and Charlie is that you guys have an abundance of projects going on at all times. How do you work all that?
Well, we’re not on the road super-often, so it gives us all time for other projects.

Could you tell me about some of your others joints?
Well, where do I begin? I’ve got this group Renwicke that gets into some really humorous free improve. Four horns and drums. And then I’ve got a duo with this amazing guitarist Mike Gamble called Pain Relief. I’ve been playing with this group out in Oakland called The Dark Smile with saxophonist Joshua Smith and bassist Kurt Kotheimer. Sometimes we add this great trumpet/organist named Gene Baker too. I also play regularly with this great guitarist and singer David Mooney; we both moved up to New York from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I’m also doing a couple of recordings soon that I’m very excited about. One with bassist Todd Sickafoose and includes some great musicians like Shane Endsley, Allison Miller and Adam Levy. The other is with vocalist Monika Heidemann, who always brings a fresh, creative, raw energy to her interesting works. Erik will be on the recording with Monika H.

What's your musical relationship like with Erik?
We had played a couple of times before we started with Charlie and I like his approach. He can really stretch. He’s into all kinds of music and he’s a great listener.

What have you been listening to (new, old, whatever)?
Lots of electronic artists like Nobukazu Takemura, Paul Lansky, Autechre, Takagi Masakatsu; and then I’m always listening to the New Orleans music (The Meters, Professor Longhair, George French, Willie Tee). That music always makes me happy.

Who are your main influences that helped develop you as a player?
All the people I play with and interact with on a daily basis.


Kenny Dorham Una Mas
Kieran Heloden and Steve Reid Tongues
Ornette Coleman The Art Of The Improvisors
John Coltrane One Up, One Down: Live At The Half Note
David Axelrod The Edge: David Axelrod At Capitol Records 1966-1970

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dilla's Year

J Dilla

Ruff Draft
Year: 2003
Label: Mummy Records
Reissue Year: 2007
Label: Stones Throw

The Shining
Year: 2006
Label: BBE

Year: 2006
Label: Stones Throw

Though I’d listened to Dilla before he passed away last February, I never heard him ‘til a few weeks after Donuts was put out. That’s just over a year now -- not that long ago in real time but when sounds are so good it seems that time passes slower, like you’re really enjoying every moment to its fullest.

Donuts is simply one of the most emotional records that I’ve ever experienced on every level. The story behind it – Dilla creating the masterpiece while dying – only adds to the plethora of feelings the instrumental album rides.

So quickly the record moves through certain passages that will hypnotize as they move. Like the trembling flow of “Waves” to the heavy bump of “Light My Fire” to the laid-back mood of “The New,” then WHOA!, the sorrow beauty of “Stop!” J gives up the perfect amount of time to each track, usually a minute or so.

One of the wicked cool things (yeah, I’m from Massachusetts) that I’ve found about this album is that you can often times hit rewind when a song ends that you don’t want to stop listening to and it feels like it never lost a beat! So many times I’ve been entranced for 10 to 15 plays in a row, especially the brassy “Gobstopper,” and R&B swirled “Time: The Donuts of the Heart,” among others. The under 45 minute album has many times clocked in at well over an hour!

Other tracks that really got me on this album are the piano-lined deep beat of “Mash” the Jackson 5 tweaked-elevation of “Two Can Win” and mysterious “Hi.” Check out the sickness Dilla on the downer “Walkinonit.” But this isn’t your singles record; it’s a continuous flow of all life’s feelings and must be listened start to finish for full affect.

If ever an album needed a serious dark-room-headphone-listen, where you could here each and every layer of sound, Donuts is that record. And so many of the tracks that you first heard on Donuts would get the royal treatment by Ghostface, The Roots, Common and D’Angelo.

The next big Dilla release of 2006 was The Shining. A spectacular record in so many ways, it sees many of J’s closest people taking the mic to his sweet beats. The first hotdog comes early with Common on the bouncing “E=MC2.” The soulful Pharoahe Monch knows what “Love” means and Dilla’s production is at its finest flash.

“Baby” finds Guilty Simpson at his most romantic:

You can catch Guilty Simpson at a rave with babes
Packing a ’38 snub and a razor blade…

And when the shit’s smokin’ where the logo’s at
And the witnesses won’t tell the po po jack
That’s how it is when we fuck shit up
Keep the girls horny and the blunts lit up

The Roots’ Black Thought is given a mellow production with a percussive clattering and dazzles the mic on “Love Movin’.” There’s also a couple of nice instrumental passages in “Love Jones” and “Over The Breaks.” But what most blazes on The Shining is the all Dilla on “Won’t Do.” All I can think about is having a blast under water in the 70s, which I think I missed the point of the song because J is trying to tell me that he needs many women in his life to be satisfied. Anyway, it’s the man at his highest!

The Shining is a great album, suffering only because it sometimes feels like an All-Star team of friends getting together to pay tribute to Dilla. And in reality that’s what it is – a great record that was almost done when Dilla passed away that was glazed with love of his deepest friends.

To cap off the year of celebrating an extraordinary life, Stones Throw reissued Ruff Draft, a work that Dilla had released in 2003. All I had heard from the short work was “Nothing Like This,” which pretty much blew my mind the first time I heard in on the Stones Throw compilation Chrome Children.

Before just a few weeks ago, the work was an out-of-print vinyl only rarity. On this project Dilla was proving that he wasn’t a one-trick dude as he takes the mic on his amazing productions. As J explains in the intro:

“Before we get this started, let me explain it. It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play that real live shit. You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like it’s straight from the ma’fuckin’ cassette! Ruff Draft... Let’s do it.”

Although there aren’t even a lot of actual full length tracks on the disc, what’s there is sure-fire classic. “Let’s Take It Back” sprinkles keyboard with that Dilla bounce. “Reckless Driving” is just a sick ride. It flashes that Dilla vocal mash that’s got so many sonic sound layers. His production sometimes reminds me of a martial arts master, boasting all elements of concentrated perfection.

When Dilla gets “The $” it’s a smooth synthy-beat affair, best rhymes and all. I love it when he says:

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
(Now let me say it again, and say it with feelin’)

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
Hit it spits the flame, hit it get the bank and split

Another track that just kills is “Make’em NV.” With a simple beat, a spinning vibe line and more Dilla swirls it’s the darkest cut on the record for sure. “Wild” is sampled with some little kid ranting off the chorus of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” with some claps and a short guitar line. Quite a clever idea and it wasn’t even available on the original vinyl.

Last November at the Stones Throw 10th Anniversary show in Baltimore it was plain to see how much that crew missed Dilla. EVERYONE misses him, including me, who never met him, and really just began listening to him in a sense. Hopefully there will be many more releases in the future so the fun will never stop!

You can find Dilla’s work on these from the last year:

Ghostface Killah “Whip You With A Strap” and “Beauty Jackson” from Fishscale
The Roots “Can’t Stop This” from Game Theory
Madlib “Take It Back” from the Chrome Children compilation
Guilty Simpson “Clap Your Hands” from the Chrome Children compilation
Busta Rhymes “You Can’t Hold A Torch” from The Big Bang