Johnny Hunter Quartet – While We Still Can
(Efpi Records FP024. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
Johnny Hunter is featuring with increasing prominence across North West England’s jazz scene… and for very good reason. The drummer/composer contributes to a number of mainstream and avant garde bands – especially in Manchester and Liverpool – including Blind Monk Trio, Marley Chingus and his own reggae/dub sextet Skamel, as well as working with artists such as Adam Fairhall, Martin Archer and Nat Birchall.
Following on from their Appropriations EP of 2013, While We Still Can marks the Johnny Hunter Quartet’s album debut with panache, presenting a sequence of the drummer’s original compositions (mostly single takes) which crackle with the acoustic immediacy and snappy confidence of classic, early ’60s Blue Note recordings. The leader cites influences which include Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and, more recently, Jim Black; and his colleagues here, since the quartet’s formation in 2011, are tenorist Ben Watte, trumpeter Graham South and double bassist Stewart Wilson.
Hunter’s music quickly dispels any notion that this album might purely be a drumming showcase at the other players’ expense. In fact, here is intelligent yet accessible jazz, full of catchy double-horn licks, which also captures the drummer’s fascination with Middle Eastern rhythms and scales, as well as adopting Ornette Coleman’s ‘here’s the theme, now let it go’ approach to free improvisation. Impetuously swinging Overture possesses all the raw energy of Don Cherry and John Coltrane which, together with its percussive maelstrom, provides a fullness of sound which deftly disregards any need for a harmony instrument. Ayça is based on an Arabic harmonic major scale; and though the initial, calm subtlety of Stewart Wilson’s folksong-like bass intro might better be appreciated live, these twelve minutes otherwise sizzle to a fervid bass-and-drum urgency, encouraging blistering trumpet improv from Graham South, and Ben Watts’ dizzying, maqam-like tenor resonances.
Misty’s Tail (which Hunter describes as being rooted in a 9/8 Turkish Karsilama rhythm, as heard in Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk) smoulders abstractly – like many of the drummer’s compositions, there is ample space for melodic extemporisation as trumpet and sax go their separate ways, occasionally meeting along harmonic pathways. While You Still Can‘s funereal march broadens to examine different modes with the kind of edgy unpredictability associated with Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Watte’s wonderfully guttural and high-climbing sax taking on that persona well); and South’s effective wah-wah-muted trumpet yowls help to perpetuate the New Orleansean feel.
The shared Puerto Rican-inflected horn riff of Clockwork-Shy does give way to a drum improvisation from Hunter, though it’s always delicately poised and keeps the interest before reconnecting with Wilson’s shapely bass underpinning and delicate fingerboard exploration; and free, diminished-scale episode Sum Dim feels interminably restless as South and Watte search and swing over the drummer’s ricochets before a furious dash to the finish. And, to close, echoic bass harmonics in Reprise are combined with softly sustained, Jan Garbarek-style tones to instil delicate, lofty reverence.
Johnny Hunter’s quartet connects authentically with jazz tradition, whilst developing its own voice through original composition – a fabulous advertisement for British jazz. They are appearing, as part of Jazz North’s ‘Northern Line’ showcase, at the 2016 Manchester Jazz Festival on 25 July.
Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, jazz writer and musician who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com