I recently had the singular pleasure of watching Sydney electric flamenco samurai Steve Hunter perform a solo bass concert. For 45 minutes (or one minute, or a year; time sort of ceased…) Hunter played through a selection of his compositions, ingeniously segueing them together into one integrated and cohesed experience.
After two or three tunes, I stopped trainspotting and just went with the flow, which Hunter kept up effortlessly. One man, one (electric) bass, a little universe of music – a cosmos of one.
Hunter has always been one of our most single-minded and disciplined players, one whose prolific output has been of one consistently high standard – the standard he applies, bushido-like, to himself and expects (and gets) from his sidemen/collaborators.
His latest album, Cosmos, is a departure in many ways, but a revelation in others. His ninth album as leader, it is his first live album – recorded at Sydney’s 505. It is also an album mainly of previously recorded compositions. And his first without guitar.
Significantly this time around, rather than precisely planning arrangements, Hunter and his band took the more traditional ‘jazz’ approach of using the compositions as musical material for blowing – more departure points than destinations, if you will.
And what a band – all Hunter cohorts from many a gig, all entirely familiar with his body of work and with these particular works; and all entirely in tune with the spirit that drives this remarkable music: Andrew Gander on drums, Matt McMahon on keys and Matt Keegan on tenor and soprano.
‘The Kingston Grin’ sets up the easy interplay and conversational mood of the album. A loose-limbed swing which see-saws between the tension of two chords for the solos, it is a simple canvas across which the players paint pictures, poetry and pure joy.
‘Love and Logic’ from 2003’s If Blue was Orange is given a very open treatment, Keegan’s solo searching and finding, searching and finding over the floating 7/8 Weather Report-like groove. Hunter’s music can sometimes bring up his influences a little strongly here and there, but such influences were cataclysmic to a generation, and the Jaco-isms here are welcome and warming. McMahon’s acoustic piano solo is notable on ‘Love and Logic’ – controlled and uplifting.
The lovely Spanish-tinged ‘Cazador’ has shown up on 2007’s Dig My Garden as well as the eponymous 2009 album of Hunter’s flamenco-jazz co-project The Translators. Here it is reimagined differently again, showcasing Hunter’s astonishing virtuosity and passionate ability to get inside the music.
Hunter says that his decision to not use guitar on this album allowed him to exploit some recent breakthroughs he has made in his playing – listen and you’ll see. Gander’s drums here are astounding for their transparency: light washes and translucent colours as background for Hunter.
‘Area 51’ is Hunter’s heartfelt tribute to five jazz spirits who left us at the early age of 51 and as intense as it is lovely. The brawn of Hunter’s playing can push his bands sometimes a little hard, but if it pushes them into a performance such as the one delivered during McMahon’s sparks-spitting Rhodes solo, then all is forgiven.
The closing track, ‘So To Speak’ from 2010’s Nine Lives is here given a spikier, funkier reading. The blowing section is nicely captured by Craig Naughton’s live recording – a little boxy but very in-the-moment – with the band really talking to each other and to us, especially during the simmer of Matt Keegan’s tenor solo. Just listening to the fun Andrew Gander has with the 7/8 groove is worth the price of admission in itself.
A focused and hard-edged album from one of our finest talents – all the more enjoyable for it’s openness and live excitement. An evolution of Steve Hunter’s artistry is seen in the Zen act of letting go and seeing what the universe can bring his way. Yes, Cosmos is quite a ride.
Cosmos is available here http://stevehunter.bandcamp.com/releases
Published April 2104 on australianjazz.net