In choosing to record Bob Marley's classic 1974 reggae album Natty Dread track-for-track in an instrumental jazz style, eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter opened himself up for skepticism. Yet an idea that looked questionable in theory would prove stellar in practice, as Hunter turned Natty Dread -- with the songs sequenced exactly as they were on Marley's original release -- into one of the best CDs of his career. Hunter's customized eight-string instrument and prodigious talent allow him to play simultaneous guitar melodies and basslines, but his Wurlitzer organ simulations and walking bass aren't the only highlights of the opening "Lively Up Yourself." Alto saxophonist Calder Spanier and tenorman Kenny Brooks alternate between swinging leads and supportive harmonies, and drummer Scott Amendola gets in creative solo flurries near the end. Hunter's beautiful intro to "No Woman, No Cry" echoes both Pat Martino and Django Reinhardt; the saxophonists' interplay and Amendola's clever rimshots, tom-toms, and cowbell work lively up "Them Belly Full." The secrets to Hunter's success lie in separate amplifiers for his instrument's guitar and bass portions; great wah-wah pedal work to achieve keyboard tones, and the requisite brain power to play basslines with both thumbs while fretting and fingerpicking the melodies. All are illustrated in readings of the tranquil "Rebel Music," energetic "So Jah Seh" and the shuffling title track. Throughout Natty Dread, reggae is implied more often than played, as Hunter and his quartet portray the fun they had in arranging these pieces with performances both swinging and stirring (even dropping an "I Shot the Sheriff" quote into "Bend Down Low"). Spanier died after Natty Dread's release when he was struck by a car, and Hunter subsequently moved from California to New York and restructured his band. There's no telling what might have come afterward from this quartet of two saxophonists, a drummer, and Hunter, the one-man guitarist, keyboardist, and bassist.
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AllMusic Review by Bill Meredith