Mr. 2 AM Reviews
Review by Scott Yanow
Charles Unger has been an important musical force in the San Francisco Bay area for the past 40 years. Although he has been featured in many settings, he is best heard as the leader of the Charles Unger Experience where he plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones in addition to contributing his originals. While he has performed in many different musical idioms (including Latin jazz, African, Mid Eastern and smooth), his main focus on Mr 2 AM is on bluesy jazz and funk.
On most of these selections, Unger is joined by keyboardist Sam Peoples, bassist Jon Reppetto and drummer Andy Marchetti. When Reppetto switches to guitar, Tony Saunders plays bass. Pianist Eugene Pliner is also utilized on some selections.
Charles Unger is the main voice throughout and he contributed all 11 selections. The CD begins with the first of two versions of his minor-toned blues “Mr. 2 AM.” This rendition was recorded live at San Francisco's Rasselas (Unger's regular gig each Sunday evening) and is quite atmospheric. While his warm tenor is heard on the title cut, the funky “Journey To Sausalito” has Unger sounding equally skilled on alto. “San Francisco After Dark,” a modern blues, has fine work by the leader on both tenor and soprano along with a good spot for People's keyboards. “The Rogue” is a one-chord jam that finds Unger getting his message across with both forcefulness and sensitivity.
“Sabbatical For Love,” which has Unger on keyboards and strong guitar from Reppetto, is as funky as the danceable “Sometimes It Doesn't Rain.” “God Has The Perfect Personality” has a rhythmic melody and lyrical tenor from Unger. Both “About Last Night” (filled with melodic and soulful tenor) and the catchy blues-based “Place Pigalle” feature plenty of fine playing by Unger. He plays both tenor and alto via overdubbing on the second version of “Mr. 2 AM” and finishes the CD by introducing the picturesque “Magic Dancer” and the rhythmic “Quasi Tempo.”
The music on the enjoyable Mr. 2 AM is consistently danceable yet filled with excellent jazz solos by Charles Unger, a saxophonist who deserves to be much better known.
Scott Yanow, author of ten books including Trumpet Kings, The Jazz Singers, Jazz On Record 1917-76 and Jazz On Film, web site
Review by Alex Henderson
R&B-flavored jazz has been around for a long time. It started in the 1940s with tenor sax honkers such as Willis “Gator” Jackson, Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, expanded with all the Philly organ combos and soul-jazz players who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, then expanded some more in the 1970s and 1980s with the jazz-funk of Grover Washington, Jr., the Crusaders, Tom Scott, Ronnie Laws, David Sanborn and others. Contrary to what rigid jazz purists would have us believe, jazz and R&B are a time-tested combination. And that combination works well for Northern California-based saxophonist Charles Unger, who produced Mr. 2 AM himself and composed all of the material.
Although not well known in the jazz world, Unger (who was born in Montgomery, Alabama) has been around the San Francisco Bay Area music scene since the early 1970s. It isn’t hard to understand why Unger called this 74-minute CD Mr. 2 AM; he favors a very dusky, nocturnal type of approach that is primarily soul-jazz but also shows a strong awareness of post-bop. The late Stanley Turrentine is one of his most prominent influences as a saxophonist and as a composer; Turrentine’s influence is impossible to miss on dusky grooves such as “Place Pigalle” (which is named after a famous street in Paris), “About Last Night,” “The Rogue” and the title track. But that is not to say that Turrentine is Unger’s only influence or that he goes out of his way to emulate him. Unger (who is heard on tenor, alto and soprano sax) has other direct or indirect influences as well, ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Grover Washington, Jr. to John Coltrane (being very groove-oriented, Unger draws on Trane’s more accessible work rather than his more abstract or avant-garde work).
“San Francisco After Dark” has a somewhat Eddie Harris-ish quality, while the thoughtful, Latin-tinged “Sometimes, It Doesn’t Rain” hints at Gato Barbieri. That Argentinean saxman has made his mark in different areas of jazz; after playing some scorching free jazz in the 1960s, Barbieri moved into acoustic post-bop before taking a more commercial, pop-influenced turn in the 1970s with albums like Caliente, Tropico and Ruby, Ruby. And it is that more accessible and commercial side of Barbieri that Unger connects with on “Sometimes, It Doesn’t Rain.”
“God Has the Perfect Personality” has some of Turrentine and Washington’s funkiness, yet it also hints at Coltrane’s spirituality. The fact that Unger’s funkiness owes something to both Turrentine and Washington should come as no surprise to those who know a lot about Washington’s background; Turrentine was one of Washington’s main influences, although Washington became quite distinctive himself. And when Unger gets funky on “God Has the Perfect Personality,” one is reminded of that Turrentine/Washington connection.
Although generally enjoyable, Mr. 2 AM isn’t without some minor flaws. A few of the tracks sound a bit overproduced; that is true of “Journey to Sausalito” and “Quasi Tempo.” Most of the time, overproduction isn’t a problem on this album, although it is somewhat of a problem on “Journey to Sausalito” and “Quasi Tempo.” The type of soul-jazz that Unger plays is better served by less production, not more production; on an album like 2 AM, it’s best to simply go into the studio, let it rip and try to capture as much of that live energy as possible.
And speak of live energy, Mr. 2 AM opens with a nine-minute live performance of the title track (there is also a six-minute studio version). However, Mr. 2 AM is primarily a studio album, not a live album. So Unger would have been better off having the live version of that song at the end of the album as a bonus track rather than at the beginning. Opening this studio-oriented CD with a live recording seems awkward.
But again, any shortcomings that Mr. 2 AM has are minor ones. There are a lot more plusses than minuses on this pleasing effort.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review by Alex Henderson, web site
Review by Wildy Haskell
In San Francisco, Charles Unger is a musical institution. A regular performer at such clubs as Les Joulins Jazz Bistro, Rasselas and the Sheba Lounge, Unger has been an innovator in the genres of Jazz, R&B and World Beat since the 1970’s. Unger, who plays Alto, Tenor and Soprano Saxophones, was deeply influenced by the seminal works of artists such as Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis, but has also drawn on a lifetime of experience playing with top level musicians the world over. Unger brings an undeniable sense of joy to his performances, with a smile that welcomes even the most recalcitrant listeners to the party, then proceeds to open up avenues of music that are enjoyable for the uninitiated and the aficionado alike. With his band Charles Unger Experience, Unger recently released his fourth album, Mr. 2 AM, plumbing the depths of light jazz, R&B and dance with mixed results.
While no one will question Unger’s chops on the saxophone, the performances on Mr. 2 AM have an almost automatic feel at times, feeling almost as if they were recorded for utility rather than with heart. There are exceptions. Unger’s opening track, a live version of “Mr. 2AM”, has a subtle, reserved feel that’s intriguing. Unger’s pianist livens things up with a flamboyant style that steps nicely to the progressive line, and serves as an interesting melodic contract to the quiet tenor sax lead. “Journey To Sausalito” is solid on the surface, with Unger’s sax work playing as at least competent, but the mix here is awful; it sounds like the horns brought in for atmosphere are played in adjoining room with lots of insulation in between. Listeners will dig the mellow funk and mild swing of “San Francisco After Dark”, with Unger providing an affable tenor sax melody line that fits perfectly with the arrangement.
Unger moves into an easy listening Stanley Jordan vibe on “The Rogue”. The sound is nice although borders on nondescript at times. “Sabbatical For Love” is a tone poem, of sorts, wrested from monotony by the slow growth in percussive intensity and volume. There is a sense of musical allegory between the sound and the title, but it may be lost on many listeners as too subtle and lacking any real sense of resolution. “Sometimes It Doesn’t Rain” is a compact piece with Latin undertones; Unger and his band get it right here, building a landscape where everything else slowly falls away but Unger and his saxophone. Unger goes for a light R&B/dance arrangement on “God Has The Perfect Personality”, fitting a lot of nice components together that don’t necessarily play well nicely together. The individual performances here are technically perfect, but there’s no sense of joy or inspiration behind them.
“About Last Night” finds Unger riffing against a simplistic dance/pop arrangement. It’s a solid listen that challenges neither the artist nor the listener, but appeals to the rudimentary pop sensibility in most. Unger turns on a low level intensity with “Place Pigalle”, bringing some of the spirit he brings to the stage to the album in a smooth flowing yet vibrant performance. The studio take of “Mr. 2AM” is layered and more polished than the opening track, yet lacks some essential quality. Unger in the more stripped down version offered on stage comes alive; here he’s just a piece of the clockwork knocking out a tune. “Magic Dancer” works over a bland, programmed-sounding arrangement, with Unger and his band alternately noodling on sax, guitar and synth. This is classic new age jazz with a bit of spice; fit for the background but discouraging careful listeners. Mr. 2AM closes with “Quasi Tempo”, diverging full into the ambient/dance realm with an undirected and shapeless composition sets Unger’s fine talent and showmanship aside.
Charles Unger is known for his exuberant style and talent, and for a stage show that is unforgettable. The show works for Unger not because of pretty lights or flashy moves, but because he’s paid his dues and learned from the greats and made them a part of his musical heritage. Progressive Jazz is ever moving forward, but on Mr. 2AM Unger seems to ignore his roots, opting more for an ever moving blend of new age jazz, R&B and even dance styles. There are definite moments to like on Mr. 2AM, but for the most part this is just an exercise in mediocrity from a master showman who is capable of much better.
Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Review by Wildy Haskell, Wildy's World web site
Review by Nick DeRiso
Charles Unger is of two minds about jazz, and that’s where things go awry.The saxophonist begins Mr. 2 AM, quite appropriately, wailing away in what sounds like a smoke-filled club, as the crowd murmurs amongst itself. At first, Unger is quietly informative, then he begins to muster a more urgent tone, even as a swinging rhythm section joins in. Soon, the band has moved into a grease-popping groove, and the conversation out in the audience has ceased.
“Journey to Sausalito,” the album’s second track, shifts directions so suddenly, however, that it threatens to pop both hamstrings. Playing now in the slick and approachable style associated with 1980s smooth jazz, Unger couldn’t sound more different than the soul-deep performer who opened Mr. 2 AM. His backing group adds an approachable if not all together intriguing R&B-tinged atmosphere, but Unger doesn’t have much room to escape his run-of-the-mill surroundings.
“San Francisco After Dark” seems to set things right, as Unger adapts a crisply swinging groove that recalls Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. His rhythm section, bassist Jon Reppetto and drummer Andy Marchetti, had their work cut out for them on this track – which starts and stops with a brilliantly fitful cadence. But they never waver, hitting the rhythm and then quitting it with a savvy finesse that allows Unger and then pianist Eugene Pliner a chance to swing and shine.
Then, Unger reverts back to a too-safe R&B vibe on “The Rogue.” Despite the addition of bouncing bass line from Reppetto, the track is largely indistinguishable from the genre’s ever-lengthening playlist of sound-alike, only vaguely soulful asides.
A curious template, then, seems to be in place – one in which Unger attempts – with varying degrees of success – to work both sides of the jazz idiom’s modern divide: Straight ahead, and smooth.
“Sabbatical for Love” snaps a string of same-sounding offerings in the latter category, as Reppetto adds a serpentine, European-inflected guitar signature to the zippy background beat. Unger, who also played keyboards on Mr. 2 AM, then sets about adding a series of brilliantly done explorations. “Sometimes It Doesn’t Rain,” a world-beat inspired mid-tempo number, also has an impressive dynamism – combining a series of showering percussion elements with a lengthy, joyful and inventive solo from Unger, this time back on the sax.
But “God Has the Perfect Personality” harkens back to the early-1990s craze of combining of hip-hop rhythms and hard-bop shapes, to only partial success. As listenable as they no doubt can be, these rhythm-track driven compositions ultimately feel a little too air tight, a little too safe, when sequenced around tunes with human performers. Far more interesting is “About Last Night,” a fun piece of crinkly funk with a foundation that sounds like Prince and a solo over the top that sounds like an old Blue Note record.
“Place Pigalle” opens with a ruminative solo that recalls John Coltrane before Unger hits an insistently ardent set of notes – then stays with it. Perhaps this project’s most completely realized straight-ahead effort, the track clatters along underneath Unger like a fast-moving freight – with the saxist, playing with real emotion now, always one step ahead. Pliner’s subsequent solo, though perhaps too deep in the mix, only emboldens Unger further it seems. When the saxist returns, he is a man aflame – coming down on each sudden stop with a striking authority. That carries over into Unger’s dramatically double-tracked twin soloing on the title track, a deeply moving moment.
Unger follows with “Magic Dreamer,” a slick piece of electro-jazz that’s as genial as it is lightweight. The closing “Quasi Tempo,” like “God Has the Perfect Personality,” can’t overcome a sterile, computerized beat.
It’s too bad, really, that Unger’s project is so often hobbled by these too-obvious forays into smooth jazz clichés. When Mr. 2 AM is on track, and that’s most often when he plays in a straight-ahead format, this is a terrific effort.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Review by Nick DeRiso, web site