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Charlie Hunter

Songs From Analog Playground (EMD/Blue Note)


Ol' Chuck scored himself the Santana treatment. Revered as a young, "hip" jazz guitarist with a creative axe (eight strings -- three bass, five guitar), California boy Charlie Hunter commands a funk-obsessed backing band and a guest vocalist slate that's not exactly of Rob Thomas caliber (thank God). It's a crossover move, from underground to mainstream and from plain ol' jazz to the boppy, hip-hop-laced "rhythm music" Playground covets. Does it work? Well, yeah, when it focuses on Hunter's guitar and plain ol' jazz.

The "name" guest vocalists just screw it up -- particularly budding rap impresario Mos Def, who puts in two insufferable turns on the mic. He charley horses the operations from the get-go on "Street Sounds," chanting atonally while all manner of clever jazz percussion bops along behind him. His faux-soul loverman shtick on "Creole" proves slightly more tolerable, but he's still hamming it up and playing for hipster cred: "Look at me! I'm on a jazz album! I'm hip! Multitalented! Too bootylicious for ya!" Shut up.

Chuck wisely alternates these shaky vocal moments with more lived-in jazz instrumentals. Despite dumb names like "Mitch Better Have My Bunny," these moments are longer, more confident, and better at linking Hunter's distinct guitar style with the hip-hop beat layering he so obviously craves. Best of all is a subtle reworking of Roxy Music's "More Than This," here laced with a lounge rhythm, Hunter's intriguingly discordant guitar, and an elegant turn from vocalist Norah Jones. She returns at disc's end to pull the same trick on Nick Drake's "Day Is Done," which matches her subdued vocals with slick solos and more tastefully applied percussion -- the best example of the streetwise fusion Chuck's goin' for here. Less is mos' def, Chuck, and sometimes Def ain't def at all.

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