The Groove Hunter
This is drummer McClenty Hunter Jr.’s first album as a leader. For the past decade Hunter has been an integral part of the New York City jazz scene, having logged three years with Kenny Garrett’s Grammy nominated quintet, and performing with Jim Snidero, Lou Donaldson and Dave Stryker, who also appears here. After all, it’s guitarist Dave Stryker’s label. Co-produced by Hunter and Stryker, the two recruited several high profile musicians to augment Hunter’s quartet of Stacy Dillard on tenor, Eric Reed on piano and Corcoran Holt on bass. Guests include Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto, and relatively new names – pianist Christian Sands and bassist Eric Wheeler.
The album features four well-composed, peaceful tunes by Hunter as well as five covers. The combination of post-bop tunes, ballads, and the many different band configurations, enable Hunter to show both forceful rhythmic leadership and gentle supportive brush work. His rhythmic flourishes are evident from the outset with Herbie Nichols’ “Blue Chopsticks” rendered in piano trio format. Wayne Shorter’s “The Big Push” follows, featuring Henderson on Trumpet and Harrison on alto, playing first in unison with the quartet before soloing and giving way likewise to Dillard and Reed for their turns. Harrison also shines on Coltrane’s “Countdown,” and seems to edge on Hunter, before the band gets control of the fury to deliver the melody in the last half minute of the 3:41.
Lest you think these covers are purely from jazz masters, there are a couple of pop-oriented surprises. They do wonderful jazz cross-over interpretations of Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl” and Gary McFarland’s “Sack Full of Dreams,” which proves to be a terrific bluesy ballad showcase for Sands, Wheeler, and Stryker. It’s in tribute to Hunter’s mentor, Grady Tate, under whom Hunter studied at Howard University. From there he earned his Masters at Juilliard under Carl Allen. Suffice it to say, he learned a little about composition in addition to drumming.
Hunter’s originals have engaging melodies, traces of classical influences as well as gospel, the latter of which hearkens back to his day of playing in Maryland under Darin Atwater of Soulful Symphony. “My Love” is especially elegant with the piano movement conjuring up Franz Liszt, along with the peaceful accompaniment of bowed bass and delicate brushes. Dillard delivers an impassioned spiritual-like tenor solo and Reed moves into improvisational mode, veering away from Liszt in his extended solo. Dillard also is the principal soloist on “Autumn” where he begins with a heated solo before closing the piece tranquilly. “I Remember When” is another nod to nostalgia, bringing Sands and Wheeler to the forefront. The closer “Give Thanks” has Hunter providing a deep-toned sound by using mallets on tom toms.
This is more than an auspicious debut. It features tasteful playing, imaginative improvisation, and a gifted knack for composition. We’ll be hearing more from Hunter for sure.
- Jim Hynes