CD Baby [Released 01.09.14]
‘Tone Poems Live’ pairs New York guitarist Steve Hunter (Alice Cooper/Lou Reed/Julian Lennon/Aerosmith) with top session players, bassist Tony Levin, drummer Alvino Bennett and keyboards Phil Aaberg in a in live studio setting that is also filmed for a DVD, and the result is a cutting edge album built on no more than two takes each.
Unlike so many detached all-star collaborations, each player here is an essential part of Hunter’s tonal vision. Co-producers Brian Brinkerhoff and Paul Lani have obviously done their pre planning as the live setting, and the combination of players and material works perfectly.
‘Tone Poems Live’ has a real sense of place, leaving Steve to shape the vibe accordingly. He’s happiest on introspective piece like the short but big impact ‘Glidepath’ and the funky ‘Rubberman’, on which he snakes in out of the whip crack rhythm track with his conversational playing style.
Hunter is the kind of feel player for whom a phrase can define a whole song. The quality of his tone is crucial and as a result he’s unhurried in his choice and execution of notes. This is heartfelt music in which no note is every wasted, no song ever overruns its course and each arrangement is wholly focused on the melodic context.
As a result the album feels like a coherent journey before it comes to rest on the gentle guitar and piano duet ‘Of All Times To Leave’.
He opens with a gentle undulating groove and intricately woven guitar lines of ‘The Idler’ and soon noodles his way into a funkier workout on ‘222 W. 23rd’, on a nicely restrained piece full of delicate tones, nuanced keyboards and percussion.
Where his previous album ‘Manhattan Blues Project’ had a bluesy after hours feel, this album has a wider scope, as evidenced by the mix of blues, funk, jazz and fusion, all an essential part of his expressive guitar playing which mirrors the album title.
The band’s interplay on ‘222 W. 23rd’ is telepathic as one player moves to the front and another holds back, Everything on this track is so understated you’re left anticipating a solo that never actually happens. There’s a lot to be said for the powers of suggestion.
‘Deep Blue’ has a plaintive feel and a weepy toned guitar while ‘Flying Hippo’ sounds as if it’s going to be fusion piece, but quickly develops into a bluesy shuffle. Steve initially contents himself with playing rhythm and then finally around the 90 second mark, builds a solo from the ground up on a track that finishes all too soon.
‘Riviera Paradise’ is an often overlooked Stevie Ray Vaughan piece that fits perfectly with the album sequence. He’s so concise that he even manages to trim the song by three minutes, without diluting the essential conversational piece between guitar and keyboard.
Steve reaches back to his days with Peter Gabriel for ‘Solsbury Hill’ on which his clipped notes and a percussive backing subtly maps out the melody. There’s a vague Latino feel to the reprise of his own ‘Swept Away’, over which his emotive notes are beautifully shadowed by pianist Phil Aaberg. It’s on moments like this that the quartet sounds as if it’s been together for years rather than a handful of rehearsals.
‘Freeway Rider’ is more of a late night blues and closer to Steve’s previous ‘Manhattan Blues Project’. The band leans into it as Steve adds some delicious whammy inflected notes on a song that subtly swings, before his angular notes head towards a slow descent into the outro.
Steve Hunter successfully uses emotive notes and subtle melodies instead of lyrics, with which to focus on the power of emotional expression. ‘Tone Poems Live’ is a gem of a record that confirms there’s still an essential role for a feel guitarist with something to say. ****
Review Pete Feenstra
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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