'Public Domain' CD REVIEW
by Jim Macnie
Call it the gramophone approach. The physical disc of Charlie Hunter's second solo guitar album has the resonance of a shellac 78, even allowing its needle-riding grooves to be discernible to the touch. This packaging parallels the ancient material the perpetually modern improviser essays this time 'round. Curated by Hunter's 99-year-old grandfather, Public Domain is a yesteryear romp that accounts for 1920s foxtrots, Al Jolson nuggets and nods to an era when the Ziegfeld Follies ruled the entertainment roost. Because of its dedication to focus and celebration of bounce, the entire thing is a hoot.
Hunter, whose fanciful excursions into the stratosphere are well documented (don't be afraid to revisit Groundtruther's Come In Red Dog, This Is Tango Leader), plays things relatively straight here. Rather than abandoning the melodies for parts unknown, he hovers around them, nudging nuanced variations into the foreground. "Meet Me In St. Louis" could be a sing-a-long; the tune's infectious nature speaks for itself. That's how it is on "Avalon" as well: The curt romp leaps from the speakers while the guitarist restacks the theme in a couple different ways. Thanks to his dexterity, he winds up conjuring the Atkins/Paul rendition on the classic Chester & Lester date.
This abracadabra interplay comes from Hunter using his thumb as a rhythm section. There's a dash of syncopation to several tracks, and his seven-string instrument allows an array of bass patterns to bubble up. The opening lines of a droll saunter through "Indiana" are individualistic enough to actually feel like a duet is going down. There are moments in the program when the thumb-pluck technique gets a bit predictable, and actually tilts towards the tedious. But for the most part - on the carousel frolic of "Meet Me In St. Louis," where he attempts to get a little Blind Blake going, say - it's a nice way to paint yourself out of a rhythm section-less corner.
Just because the guitarist keeps these performances on a tight leash doesn't mean he banishes expressiveness. The liquid tone of the single-note foray on "Limehouse Blues" is loaded with personality. And one of the most fascinating spins is "Low Bridge Song (15 Miles On The Erie Canal)," which sets its melody in a series of ominous taps and plinks that make you forget previous versions by Burl Ives and Bruce Springsteen. Hunter brings the sweat of barge work to the table, and as the whispery track unfolds, you start thinking that the famed waterway should actually be deemed "eerie." Though he spends much of Public Domain applying for a job as the new Mitch Miller, on this one Hunter seems more like the old David Lynch.
Public Domain: Ain't We Got Fun; Alexander's Ragtime Band; Avalon; Cielito Lindo; Danny Boy; Low Bridge Song (15 Miles On The Erie Canal); Indiana; Limehouse Blues; How You Gonna Keep Em Down On The Farm?; Meet Me In St. Louis; St. Louis Blues. (37:54)
Personnel: Charlie Hunter, seven-string guitar