This 2013 release by The James Hunter Six is a high-voltage R&B tour-de-force that hearkens back to days when Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, Al Green, and countless others ruled the charts with hits from Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
Minute By Minute on Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group introduced twelve new James Hunter originals, all dripping with the sweat of an artist immersed totally in his work. In addition to being a solid songwriter and guitarist, Hunter is a highly skilled soulful vocalist graced with a deeply ingrained polished grittiness that grabs your attention and holds it firm. With his newest venture, Hunter has teamed with Daptones honcho and ace nu-funk producer Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), to create a retro-soul horn laden happening as tight as a tick.
Hunter and Roth have achieved an organic agreeable sound by means of the old-school method of having the band record live in the studio, thus gaining a dynamic quality difficult to replicate by other means. James’ early appetite for Blues, Soul, & R&B music was nourished by the records furnished by his grandmother and older brother, serving to instill a life-long love of these fully absorbed musical styles.
The James Hunter Six is made up of James Hunter on guitar and lead vocals, Jonathan Lee on drums, Jason Wilson on double bass, Lee Badau on baritone saxophone, Damian Hand on tenor saxophone, and Kyle Koehler and Andrew Kingslow on various keyboards. The long-standing cohesive unit has been well-honed by years of extensive professional performance touring behind Hunter’s relentless road warrior mentality.
The album opens with “Chicken Switch,” riding a funk-groove that pays respect to Motown’s “Grapevine” melody as well as the strong rhythmic funk heat of James Brown and The Famous Flames. Spiritedly moving with punchy brass, forceful rhythm guitar, and undulating Hammond B-3 organ, the tune is topped by a wrenching sharp vocal by Hunter complete with a taste of chicken cluck chicken-speak. It gets the album off to a strong start.
The title cut “Minute By Minute” features an infectious snappy drum and bass rhythm beat accompanied by organ and Stax Records-style horn arrangement. Hunter provides his best raw and gravelly passionate Wilson Pickett vocals to this fine song that boasts a joyous feel and has been chosen as the first single.
The short but sweet “Drop On Me” has a flawless vocal aided by tastefully rousing guitar and interspersed horns that again recall the glory days of R&B. It is representative of the lofty quality contained on every song on Minute By Minute, where any song can be a favorite on any given day.
The soul-blues of “Heartbreak” hinges on the credible anguished vocal and the dance pulsing rhythm. It may be the bluesiest song on the album, with the majority of the tunes leaning heavily towards Classic Soul, and it works very well. Hunter channels his inner Sam Cooke to excellent advantage, proving how accomplished and flexible a singer he is.
The highly charged “One-Way Love” affords an up-tempo excuse for Hunter to cultivate his guitar flair and incorporates a balancing vibraphone by Andrew Kingslow. The rhythm section swings while the twin horns invitingly put out a persuasive call to the dance floor as they snake and twist around the melody. Hunter’s vocals reach an upper register and come close to, but never quite, crack.
“Gold Mine” takes you way back with a melody similar to Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.” The lyrics though are a witty spin of the classic love song. Hunter has come up with a new way to verbalize the intent, central in most love songs, of letting your lover know the feelings in your heart in the most romantic way.
“Let The Monkey Ride” is juiced by a near Bossa Nova groove beat with a Jamaican R&B tangy spiced Hunter vocal. The entire band embraces the melody stroked nicely by electric guitar trimming and particularly enticing keyboards.
A sing-speak deeper timber vocal is partially used to form a conversation between protagonist James and the fortuneteller. Hunter inquires of “The Gypsy” as to what the soothsayer sees in his impending days. The lyrics foretell an ironic twist that I won’t spoil by indulging here.
“So They Say” is a pretty ditty that includes tropical island style sweetly played vibes and the intense romanticism often prevalent on vintage Motown singles. The breezy feel of the melody sets it apart from the other songs, and Hunter sounds helplessly vulnerable to the consequences of yearning love.
The fleeting “Nothin’ I Wouldn’t Do” recalls the time when early rock and roll was being merged with R&B with the Chuck Berry meets Ventures inspired guitar riff taking a brief lead over the big drum beat and the bleating horn play.
The baritone sax insistently barks yakety-yak on “Look Out” poking in and rallying around the steady pounding semi-Latin-touched beat and James’ superb soul-strut blues singing. His guitar teasingly adds a slight shade of blue to go along with the vibes and keys; but it is the sax that hotly rules.
The album closer “If I Only Knew” is a tender love ballad vocally reminiscent of Sam Cooke, Johnny Lyons, or Johnny Rawls. James Hunter produces a truly lovely heart-felt vocal accompanied by his soft acoustic guitar and some light wooden clave percussion as he achingly croons “what I gotta do to make ya love me too?” Clever lyrics that might seem clichéd in another’s hands, fit like a glove with Hunter’s deft touch.
Throughout Hunter’s vocals reveal glimpses of other soulful vocalists, but he molds these compelling forces into a voice that remains full of spirit and purpose and invariably his own. The horn play of Lee Badau and Damian Hand repeatedly add an extra dimension to the rhythm track; much like the effect The Memphis Horns had on earlier Stax music sessions, or approximating the bolstering Southside Johnny continually receives from the brass section of his Asbury Dukes.
The briefness of each of these well-written songs helps bring a bonding adhesiveness to the package, with a flowing feel of one song moving on to the next. The production crafts the sensation of being in the front row of a small smoky room and the band is super soul-tight together the whole time.
The persistent true nucleus of the recording remains James Hunter’s engrossingly gritty vocals, and on Minute By Minute they prove in-your-face vibrant. He possesses precise phrasing, oozes raw emotion, and wields a well-controlled passion. He is a charismatic singer whose pedestal rests squarely on a firm foundation of soul.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com