Charlie Hunter’s Let the Bells Ring On (Ropeadope Records) is a summation and an expansion of a long career and a way of seeing. Hunter’s love of the spectrum of tonality, his writing for other voices, and his assimilating of history find a perfect balance with his recent practice of distilling everything down for just his seven-string guitar and a drummer. On Let the Bells Ring On, Hunter reunites with Bobby Previte (his foil in Groundtruther and rhythm section co-conspirator in jukebox deconstructionists Omaha Diner) and reignites a collaboration with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, previously seen on his quintet record.
The slower songs are the key to this gorgeous record. On “Those People,” everything is low-end, and the track is sensuous and erotic, but also ominous. Fowlkes leads with a vocal approach, all come-hither smears and growls that atomize into stuttering as he unleashes a flurry of sparks. Behind him Hunter plays fluid riffs that take sudden turns, spinning out across his rich basslines. Previte owns that saloon tempo, a downshifting between ballad and midtempo, using a lagging kick and an upfront cymbal to create a slinky groove that he owns like a heartbeat. The title track is that rarest of birds, a subtle anthem that surges full of light and redemption. A country-jazz soliloquy painted in tones of post-bebop, here Previte keeps the song at a beautiful waltzing tempo. He also uses unexpected fills and rolls to reinforce the sense of drama that the whole world takes on when you really notice things like church bells ringing down the street or the way the breeze suddenly shifts. Hunter’s synthesis of bass and guitar through the seven-string is at its most fluid and organic on this track, leaving no distinction between his storytelling and his grooves, and Fowlkes’ trombone is a hot-blooded moan and shout, bringing the gospel influence that suffuses the entire album to the fore.
The hard, thick grooves for which Hunter is known are in no way neglected on Let the Bells Ring On. “Anthem USA” starts with a martial beat that pulls against the guitar to create an elastic, funky second-line stomp accentuated by the oily, glistening trombone. The way a hard pluck plays in perfect unison with Previte’s cymbal to create dynamic crashes underneath Fowlkes’ horn gives drama and a sense of falling apart that are befitting of the title. “Pho-Kus-On-Ho-Ho-Kus” is a Previte showcase with his funky triple-time snare and hi-hat completing each other’s breath. The horn and guitar both focus more on stabs and texture while that drum tells the story. As the drums speed up and that detail blurs into torrents of lava, Fowlkes’ horn snakes out and uncoils into a smoke signal. “Welcome to Nutley” also dips into New Orleans territory with unison playing and cubist chicken scratch guitar. All three members seem to egg each other on in a quest to see who can go the farthest into the heart of a pit of grime with the nastiest, most distorted playing on the album and the catchiest melody.
Let the Bells Ring On is a record obviously made by equals; every member of this trio has distilled his voice down to a rich, bright-burning purity, and the respect radiates in every groove. It’s also a testament to irrepressible, clear-eyed joy—the joy of creation but also joy as a way of living, a way of greeting the world.