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Jazz Appreciation, 2060

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             When I was at school at the University of Oregon, I took a lot of classes.  There were history classes, journalism classes, english classes, a lot of political science classes, a few science classes, even an art history class (Chicks, man!).  To be honest, 10+ years removed from the experience, most of them have bled together in my memory. 

              A few stand out, however.  An astronomy course where in a friend of mine cheated off me on the final and got a better grade.  A sociology course where the professor offered extra credit to students who skipped class to join the WTO riots inSeattle.  A military science course that I took along with a future NFL 1,000-yard rusher and a future NBA slam dunk champion.  We learned to rappel…down the bleachers.

              But possibly my single most memorable class at the U of O was an awesome jazz appreciation course I took my sophomore year.  We learned about and listened to jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Count Basie and many others. 

              I probably listened to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue" 50 times that semester, from start to finish.  There is no question that I’m a better man for having done so. 

              Never has a college course been more aptly named. That semester, I developed a great appreciation for "the only true American art form." 

              Now, I realize that not everybody has the time to take a semester-long jazz appreciation course, and besides, its 470 miles to the University of Oregon.  But I have some good news: The same effect can be achieved with a library card and a ticket to a Charlie Hunter show.

              Charlie Hunter is a jazz guitarist extraordinaire, a truly one-of-a-kind performer, and he brought his unique seven-string stylings to Harlow‘s Wednesday night. 

              But first, the audience was given a crash course in classical music appreciation. To open the show, we were treated to a 30-minute set from onetime child prodigy and current violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine.  The soloist, in town for a show with the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra this Saturday, was an epiphany.

              She came out playing a 1742 "ex-Soldat" Guarnari, which she prefers to the Stradivarious, although she said it’s simply a matter of taste. She compared the two different violins to red and white wine, although I don’t recall which was which.  I do remember that her violin had once been the property of Marie Soldat, a female virtuoso who had been discovered by Johannes Brahms at the age of 15 in 1878. 

              The legendary German composer even picked out the young Soldat’s violin for her, and by extension, Barton Pine’s for her.  How cool is that?

              She played a variety of songs, including one she described as "Chamber Blues," where the violin mimicked the sound of a blues harmonica, before finishing with a gypsy violin piece.

              I was standing at the far end of the stage, next to the backstage door.  At one point during her performance, Charlie himself popped out to take some of her in. "She’s spectacular," I offered. 

He gave me a wry smile and responded, "Yeah, I know." 

I suppose he would. . . .

            She stepped off the stage to surprisingly raucous applause just after 9:30. Ten minutes later, she was back, this time at a table to the side – a fan like the rest of us.

              At 9:45, Charlie Hunter took the stage, joined by Eric Kalb on drums and Ron Miles on trumpet.  Kalb has played with such R&B luminaries as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Greyboy All Stars and John Scofield.  The Jazz Times calls Ron Miles "one of the finest trumpeters in jazz today."  And Charlie Hunter is, well, Charlie Hunter.

              Charlie has been described as a "guitar wunderkind," and his playing is truly mind-boggling.  He plays a custom made seven-string guitar, which has three bass strings and four guitar strings.  He is his own bass player, and it’s truly a sight to behold. 

              Listening with your eyes closed, or from another room, you’d bet anything that you were listening to a four-piece.  Though the bass line and guitar sounds meld perfectly together, they are also totally free of one another, unencumbered in any way. Even upon re-entering the room, or opening your eyes, it’s still hard to believe that all that sound is coming from just the one instrument. 

              But Hunter is not some gimmicky virtuoso, he is one of the finest improvisational musicians of our time, and Kalb and Miles are more than worthy collaborators. The three men played for more than 90 minutes, alternating between jazzy, funky and bluesy, but remaining masterful throughout.

              The only problem I had with the show, as is often the case when I attend shows where the vast majority of the audience is seated, was an inability to keep my dancing, well, er, restrained.  My musical enjoyment center is connected directly to my "get up and boogie" bone.  I am forever teetering on the brink of becoming "that guy," jitterbugging furiously while the rest of those in the crowd remain seated, nodding their heads or tapping their toes.

              I can sit down for a moment, but what starts as a toe tap can rapidly degenerate into "the sprinkler," or, in some cases, even "the worm."

              I had to find myself a spot off to the side of the stage where I could dance to my heart’s content without upsetting the more upright members of the crowd.  A few kindred spirits joined me during some of the more up-tempo jams. 

              Finally, during the feverish encore, one brave soul stood up directly in front of the stage and began cutting the rug.  Now, I have seen this move spark a feud between the seated and the dancing that would make the Hatfields and McCoys blush.  But there was no such issue on this fine evening, and soon there were a couple dozen dancers near the front of the stage, peaceably intermingling with those who remained seated. Dogs and cats, living together.  A wonderful end to a wonderful show.

              I will never have the opportunity to see Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane perform live.  But I have seen Charlie Hunter, and so should you.  Sure, it’s not the same as seeing one of the greats who I learned about in jazz appreciation class so many falls ago.   But 50 years from now, when they’re teaching jazz appreciation at the University ofOregon, Outer Space Extension, you can bet they’ll spend some time discussing Charlie Hunter.  That’s good enough for me.

 

Charlie and the boys are playing the Freight&Salvage in Berkeley at 8 p.m. tonight. If you leave right now, you might make it.

They are also playing Friday at the El Rey Theater in Chico.

 

Rachel Barton Pine is playing with the Sacramento Philharmonic on Saturday.

 

If you wanna catch a show, hit me up at [email protected]

 

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