James Hunter / The James Hunter Six

Minute by Minute

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Five years between records can be a long time for most artists. James Hunter's not one of them. He's always recorded sporadically, preferring to be a road warrior. He went through some rough stuff between 2008's The Hard Way and 2012: namely, the diagnosis, illness, and eventual death of his wife Jacqueline in 2011 from cancer. Minute by Minute is billed to the James Hunter Six; it's an acknowledgment and thank you to his band -- Lee Badau (baritone saxophone), Damian Hand (tenor saxophone), Kyle Koehler (organ), Jonathan Lee (drums), and Jason Wilson (double bass), who've been playing with him for over 20 years. The set also marks the first time the Essex songwriter has recorded in America. Beautifully and organically produced and engineered by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth, and completely self-written, Minute by Minute is Hunter's most consistent collection of songs. They are drenched in his familiar meld of Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and the Five Royales, but one can also hear the great British soul-blues of early Graham Bond in the mix -- every producer but Roth has missed this about Hunter: the "Britishness" in his take on American soul and R&B. Hunter knows it's impossible to emulate his idols, but he can -- and does -- reveal how much their influence means to him as a modern musician. His voice here is more weathered but also far more expressive; he takes chances with it he hasn't before. Whether it's the rolling pop of horns and B-3 on opener "Chicken Switch," the put-up-or-shut-up, James Brown-tinged phrasing in "Drop on Me," or the rhythmic nod to "Evil Ways" in the wrenching "Heartbreak," Hunter digs deep into the fabric of each tune to wrench every ounce of meaning from it lyrically and emotionally. The smoky horn backings never overwhelm that voice but highlight its many nuances. Lee's drum kit rolls throughout, punctuating just enough to make these tracks pop. Check "Gold Mine," where his shuffle sets up just atop Koehler's organ and Andrew Kingslow's upright piano; Wilson's steady rolling, deceptively knotty bassline lays down a sprightly foundation for Hunter's vocal to celebrate the wonders of love even as it carries the weight of the world in its grain. This tune and "If I Only Knew" -- which features Hunter in his sweetest croon -- openly celebrate Cooke's influence. "Nothin' I Wouldn’t Do" and "Look Out" are stone dancefloor killers with great guitar breaks. While "Minute by Minute" is a tune the James Hunter Six have always done, it's brighter, tougher, leaner, far more expressive, and drenched in the joy of soul music. It's very close to what they deliver on-stage. His intelligent lyrics and melodies inside the arrangements of these beautifully crafted songs underscore the integrity and passion in his trademark voice. This is inarguably his finest album.

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