Saturday, August 17, 2013

Todd Hunter's Dig It & Have a Nice Trip on CD

This is more of a preview than a review; I don't make a habit of reviewing CDs that originally came out in 1997 and 2003 unless they're remasters or special editions. In fact, this is actually another musical recommendation from my good friend Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, an introduction of sorts to his friend Todd Hunter. Dan has yet to steer me wrong when it comes to music--he's the one who turned me onto singer Halie Loren, who has quickly become my go-to girl whenever I need a great female voice recording that isn't one of the usual (i.e. predictable) suspects. Dan wanted me to familiarize myself with Todd's previous releases because he's getting ready to release a new recording later in the year. That's not something to be taken lightly, since it's been a decade since the last one. But it's not like Todd Hunter hasn't been busy. He has.

So who is Todd Hunter? He's a jazz pianist, of course, and a quite gifted one. His style reminds me a little of Bill Evans--fluid, lyrical and dense--although Hunter has a fondness for salsa and samba beats that can make this particular comparison tough to secure. (But the similarities are there, at least for me.) Todd has also been around, as they say in jazz, which means he's played with such folks as Nancy Wilson, Kenny Burrell, Les McCann, Billy Higgins, Buddy Collette, Ndugu Chancler, Ronny Laws and Diane Reeves. He's also spent quite a lot of time touring with pop and R&B superstars such as Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Night, Gloria Estefan and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Oh, and Todd's father is Bill Hunter, another accomplished jazz pianist. Along with Todd's son William, who plays trumpet, there's a lot of jamming at the Casa Hunter. No wonder Todd's only releasing his third solo album in 16 years--like I said, he's been busy.

That's kind of a shame in a way, because 1997's Dig It and 2003's Have a Nice Trip are really, really good. Better than good. Amazing. Earlier in the year I talked to jazz saxophonist Daniel Louis White about the contemporary jazz scene, and if it still contains the kind of trailblazing talent that existed fifty or sixty years ago. Daniel wasn't sure...he's just staying true to himself and what's inside him. These two Todd Hunter CDs emerge as Exhibit B to Daniel's Exhibit A, that modern jazz is still full of musicians who straddle the razor's edge between keeping history alive and feeding the genre as if it's a living, breathing thing (which it is). Both Daniel and Todd have helped me to realize that I've spending too much time listening to jazz from the '50s and '60s. I've been like one of those Boomers who haunt the music forums and declare that modern jazz died when Miles released Bitches Brew. I need to play catch-up; there's so much good jazz still being played every day.

While these two CDs sound a bit different from one another--Dig It has a more intimate feel, and the brass sounds a bit softer and mellower, while Have a Nice Trip is a wilder, more rambunctious younger brother--Hunter firmly puts his signature sound and style up front in both recordings. First of all, he must love percussion. He employs quite a few drummers and percussionists on both CDs including Aaron Serfaty, Mike Gutierrez, Raymond Pounds (great name for a drummer!) and Cassio Duarte, and he always gives them plenty of space to run and create lots of excitement on stage. Second, he's a truly balanced pianist when it comes to sharing the stage. He never recedes into the background, plunking the odd key just to remind everyone he's still there. While he's extremely generous with his fellow musicians, his piano is also the beacon, and there's no doubt that the leader of this band is the guy sitting on the skinny wooden stool.

Finally, all but two songs on these two CDs are originals, written by Todd Hunter. This might be one way in which contemporary jazz differs from past generations, the need for original compositions and the reluctance to put a new twist on an old standard (although Hunter does cover "Autumn Leaves" and "Comin' Home, Baby" on Have a Nice Trip). My theory is that we've seen at least three or four generations of singer-songwriters in rock, folk and pop, and it may have bled into the world of jazz. It's a matter of integrity, I suppose, the dividing line between hitmakers who just need to look good on stage and those talents who are trying to make their mark. I can go on and on about this, but suffice it to say that after all these decades it takes tremendous skill and inspiration to write original jazz compositions that sound as rich and melodic and memorable as those beloved standards.

If I had to choose one CD over the other, surprisingly I'd go with the older Dig It. (As a side note, I knew I had another album in my collection with the same title--it turned out to be from Klaus Schulze. These two albums sound just a little bit different from each other.) This has nothing to do with the strength of the compositions or the quality of the performances. I just felt that the overall sound quality of Dig It was simpler, smoother and more hypnotic. On Have a Nice Trip, the horns have a bite to them that will keep you on the edge of your seat. I'm reminded of J. Gordon Holt's comments about audiophiles who complain about harsh, bright horns on recordings, and how horns in real life are harsh and bright. There's nothing wrong about the horns on the second album, but they are more forward. This, of course, is nitpicking, so ignore me. These two albums are fantastic, and I can't wait to hear the new album later this year.

Until then, you can get Dig It and Have a Nice Trip directly from Todd Hunter's website at

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