Apr 7 2016
Pianist Stu Hunter has a trilogy of albums that I’m highly recommending. It might not end as a trilogy, but the succession of recordings that lead up to the third release, The Migration, display a progression reminiscent of a story unfolding one book at a time, each chapter informing the front & back covers that bind it together while also hinting at things ahead and those that have come before. There have been any number of times I’ve commented on this site about the power of three in a project’s development, and how it allows the creative arc of a vision to become fully realized… or, at least, become emergent so that, with subsequent releases, the development of further ideas can unfold in a way that is as easy to follow as a well-lit trail.
With his 2016 release, Hunter offers up exactly that. And he does it with a big statement, of grand ideas manifesting the fragmentary visions only hinted at in previous recordings… yet all leading up to this very moment, as if planned that way from the very start. And perhaps it was. Looking back over the three recordings, Hunter gives every indication of a grand design.
Each successive album in the trilogy grows increasingly complex and includes more voices. Part one of the trilogy is the 2008 release The Muse. Of the three albums, it’s the sparsest by far. It’s also the most closely attuned to the jazz tradition. A quartet date, Hunter’s work on piano is situated right out front, and it shows his ability to move with elegance and grace. The way Matt Keegan‘s sax lets out contented sighs of melody is one of the album’s highlights, as is the way bassist Cameron Undy and drummer Simon Barker are able to spur the quartet into wind sprints without decimating the sense of peacefulness that the quieter moments spent so much time establishing.
The trilogy’s second installment is the 2009 release The Gathering. For this session, the quartet expands by two, adding the tenor sax of Julien Wilson and the trombone (and pocket trumpet) of James Greening. In addition to the expanded textures, Hunter’s deft construction of rhythmic underpinnings begins to reveal itself. And no less so, the way melodic inventions are woven into the framework of the rhythms also shows. The temptation may be to listen to the three albums in the order of their creation, but truly, no appreciation is lost by tracing from flower to seed instead of taking a chronological approach to the albums. The session’s concluding track, “Finale,” is a clearly marked bridge to the third and most recent album, The Migration.
The Migration is a huge step up from the previous two albums. It possesses an expansive vision and a presence sufficiently massive to occupy the entire horizon line of a creative landscape. The quartet that became a sextet now expands into an octet (plus some guest vocalists), though it isn’t so much the size of the army that leaves its mark as it is the weapons they bring to the line. Keegan and Wilson add a number of extra reed instruments, Hunter and Barker add all kinds of extra percussion, Phil Slater joins Greening to supply an array of brass, and Carl Dewhurst adds his guitars. But this is an album with a Big Sound, and it’s more than just the tools of the trade that get them there.
“Dawn Chorus” comes out with a sunrise warmth, but eventually enters into the expanded grooves that punctuate the attitude of this recording. And the melodic threads worked into the fabric of the tempo are more likely to flex some muscle than on previous recordings, where a certain delicate nature was called for. The grooves have dance on their mind with “Eagle Fish,” and it’s where Hunter’s crew begins using with great success the harmonic washes that streak across the surface of the grooves, pouring briefly over the melodies before they emerge on the other side.
Thankfully, the outfit slows things down a bit on consecutive vocal tracks. Katie Noonan delivers the ballad of “Twelves Stages of Freedom,” a song that grows from an expression of tranquility to one where surges of intensity overwhelm and tranquility becomes more of a concept. And Tina Harrod’s voice is a smoky blues on “Requiem for Belief,” infusing a funereal song with some heart, beating proud and strong. The instrumental track “River at Dusk” drifts along slowly, propelled by the nuanced pulse of percussion.
“MDu Moonshine” returns to the state of the groove, and the staggered layering of brass, drums & bass, and piano provide a bit of an enthusiastic hop to each burst forward. A little twang from guitar, some cooing from sax, thick currents of brass and Tina Harrod’s vocals send the groove higher and higher. It leads in beautifully to the album finale, which brings down the curtains with the sonic road trip “Land of Gypsies,” switching up its grooves like changes of scenery from a car window.
A very cool and very fun album, and part of a progression of music that is equally cool and fun to hear unfold.
Your album personnel: Stu Hunter (piano, percussion), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Cameron Undy (acoustic & electric basses), Carl Dewhurst (guitars), Matt Keegan (tenor & baritone saxes, alto clarinet), Julien Wilson (tenor sax bass clarinet, clarinet), James Greening (trombone, pocket trumpet, tuba), Phil Slater (trumpet) and guests: Tina Harrod (vocals) and Katie Noonan (vocals).
This album is Self-Produced.
Listen to more album tracks at the artist’s Bandcamp page.
Jazz from the Sydney, Australia scene.
Cool album cover art by Ashlie Hunter.