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T.J. Kirk

Talking Only Makes It Worse (2003)

Review by: Jeffrey Fishman
Date: 3/15/04

I know what you’re thinking, “How impressive can a quartet of three guitars and one drummer playing only cover songs actually be.” Well, if one of those guitar players is the brilliant, unequaled talent of Charlie Hunter, and the covers are of the legendary Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rashaan Roland Kirk, you need only listen to a few seconds of their performance before feeling foolish for even considering the question.

Fans of Charlie Hunter will need no convincing on this matter. If you are not familiar with the genius of this revolutionary axe man, it’s about time you woke up and asked somebody! I’ll try to explain briefly, but you can never fully appreciate what the man is all about until you’ve seen him play up close. Close enough to watch his fingers; for that is the only way you’ll believe that one man is responsible for all of that music.

Charlie Hunter, by far the most glaring omission to Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitar players of all time, has invented, and over the last decade perfected, a new instrument – the eight-string guitar. Combining three bass strings and five guitar strings on one custom made axe, Hunter deftly lays down funky bass lines while alternating between beautifully harmonic rhythms and mesmerizing solos reminiscent of jazz legend Wes Montgomery. Yes, simultaneously. You have to see it to believe it.

Talking Only Makes It Worse, released on Ropeadope records in late 2003 and available only on the Internet, is an instrumental jazz lover’s dream come true. This is a live recording from 1997 in Santa Cruz, CA that closely reflects the performances on Kirk’s two mid-90’s Warner Bros. releases. The self-titled 1995 debut and 1996’s Grammy-nominated If Four Was One act not only to showcase Hunter’s skills but also feature the talents of fellow guitar slingers Will Bernard and John Schott as they take turns shredding solos over the steady beats of Scott Amendola on the skins. On display for all to hear is the ability of these four exceptional musicians to interpret and re-orchestrate classic compositions from some of the true masters of jazz and funk.

The James Brown covers, most notably, "Soul Power, Damn Right I Am Somebody" and "The Pay Back" really demonstrate that Hunter has more talent in his right thumb than most of us have in our entire bodies as he effortlessly navigates through some of the funkiest bass lines ever recorded. The album opens with "Soul Power," which begins as a frenetic paced, straight ahead jazz version, before settling into a nice cozy groove as Hunter takes his solo. "Damn Right" and "Pay Back" continue to feature Charlie’s ability to play with two brains showing off his simultaneous bass and harmonic rhythm guitar prowess as Bernard and Schott exchange equally impressive spotlight performances. "Get On The Good Foot/Rock Hard In A Funky Place" starts out with a delightful calypso groove before kicking into a more traditional funky jazz treatment.

The true standouts on this album are the treatments of the Thelonious Monk compositions. Monk’s brilliance as a composer is reaffirmed throughout the recording. "Bemsha Swing" is left almost unchanged, and rightfully so. This bouncy, jazzy cover does Monk’s original extreme justice. The quartet’s interpretation of "Epistrophy" demonstrates its versatility. The track begins, again, closely mimicking the Monk version, slow and delicate with Amendola tapping out rhythms on his rims. Midway the rhythm changes up and the song takes on a Bluegrass feel, before playing a rapid fire set of classic rock guitar riff interpolations including, but not limited to Aqualung, Barracuda, Rock & Roll, and Iron Man. "Cross The Track/Thelonious" is a clear example of the interplay of Bernard and Schott, who skillfully handle the dual lead guitar roles playing in perfect unison throughout the album.

One regret is that there is but one full Rashaan Roland Kirk composition included in the concert. The two studio albums included much more from this lesser known jazz great, who is also prone to play numerous instruments at once. "Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith" is the lone ballad on this record and is a very tender treatment by a three soloists backed up by Amendola’s artistic brushwork.

As far as live recordings go, the sound quality is exceptional. As many of the songs flow into one another there are only a couple of breaks for applause. And aside from a brief interlude to tell the crowd of the previous nights performance in Petaluma at a “patchouli naked barbecue” and inciting the crowd to chant about “Santa Cruz soul food” (i.e., spirolina, wheat grass juice, and bee pollen), you might even think this was a studio endeavor.

While Talking Only Makes It Worse in most cases more resembles a studio album than a live performance it only makes me regret never having seen this quartet live. T. J. Kirk did reunite for two nights in December 2003 in San Francisco but there was no tour. One can only hope that the CD or DVD from those performances don’t also take six years to release as the liner notes chide. But until then Talking Only Makes It Worse is available at charliehunter.com or can be downloaded at ropeadope.com.

T.J. Kirk website

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