Charlie Hunter; Medeski Martin & Wood 

Charlie Hunter (Blue Note); Tonic(Blue Note)

Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood, instrumentalists who developed their styles while living on opposite coasts, each have a penchant for infusing a groove aesthetic with jazz arrangements and improvisation. Hunter's growing cult of enthusiasts should find his latest album a worthy addition to his annual output of melodically enhanced groove tunes, while Medeski Martin & Wood's latest will confuse its jam band following and likely lure a jazz purist fan base.

Using an eight-stringed instrument that allows him to simultaneously play guitar and bass, Hunter shows off his skills without merely performing one senselessly endless solo. He's done this from his debut with the Charlie Hunter Trio back in 1993, and his work along the fretboard is once again both the focus and the background of the songs here. Charlie Hunter doesn't reinvent the musical tenets he established. Instead, he sets in motion eight tracks of instrumental mutations that bear his groove-based trademark and continues to show that his intentions remain on finding attractive rhythms.

With Tonic, Medeski Martin & Wood do their best to distance themselves from the groove nation. Although the trio is a major influence on the jam band scene and consistently performs in front of tie-dyed groove enthusiasts, it's as if its downtown background gigging in the Knitting Factory has taken over here. The interlocking of bass, drums, and electric organ has been the foundation for its funky rhythms and spacey interludes, but on Tonic, named after the New York club where the group performed a series of acoustic dates, the music is more demanding. It's defiantly risky, which ultimately entails a certain degree of note-filled self-indulgence; yet the trio also displays a strong vision for the format. The opening track, "Invocation," is solid, but too many percussion solos and free-form moments dull the band's good intentions, and the four covers and four originals tend to ignore the melodic force heard on the band's electric work. Still, they do produce the occasionally seductive rhythm-based number, which will appease longtime fans while catering to jazz enthusiasts.

More by John Benson


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