It's been two and a half years since Charlie Hunter's last release, Copperopolis. This is certainly not too long to wait if you're happy with the jazz status quo. But for those of you who are Hunter fans Mistico has been a long time coming.

With Mistico, Hunter's first release on Fantasy Records, he continues the quest he's been on since he left Blue Note years ago; a quest no more complicated than the enjoyment of music-his own and others'. And he seems at least a few steps closer to what he's been looking for. "I wanted everything to sound like one kind of large instrument that will shift its focus to different aspects of it," says Hunter.

With that as the cornerstone, everything about Mistico suggests simplicity, not in composition, but in preparation. Getting back to the trio configuration, Hunter joins Simon Lott on drums and Erik Deutsch on piano, Fender Rhodes and CasioTone. Yep, CasioTone. Hunter has taken a string off his Novax eight-string and had the neck shaved down, bringing him back to the seven-string formation that first got our attention. Mistico was recorded on tape, very lo-fi, with most of the tunes being captured in one or two takes and without charts.

Even the mindset is sheer simplicity. There is a notable absence of "superfluous pyrotechnics" on Mistico, foregoing contrived "guitar-oriented skateboard tricks" for the "team ball" that pure improvisation with talented players is affording him. "I'm finally enjoying music in a way I haven't since I was a kid," says Hunter. And it shows.

As usual, Hunter pushes away from jazz while staying completely true to it. Channeling every musical influence he has (and some he likely wishes he didn't have) has brought about his most ambitious record yet. From fusion to prog rock, it's all here, whether intentionally or not. But it's all in the name of jazz.

"The worst direction is to take that information literally," he says, speaking on the subject of jazz tradition. "The best is to deal with your influences-deal with the fact that you're living in 2007 and reflect that." Hey, if jazz was static, Ornette Coleman may have wound up playing gospel. In the same way, Hunter is embracing the time in which he lives while staying true to the form. And he's also embracing his instrument in a new (old) way. "When you're in that 'jazz world,' there's always this idea that the guitar is a nasty, dirty thing that needs to be made tame so that people like it," Hunter says. And he ain't havin' it. Now is the time to prepare for a Charlie Hunter you've never heard.

The record starts off easy, with a sweet "Barney Miller" groove that stays pretty grounded, but nevertheless gives you a peek at what's to come. By the time "Speakers Built In" comes around, you still won't be expecting the mashup of jazz, funk, and full-on prog that awaits. It's still more Charlie Hunter than Rush, but it's out there. And it's only the second track.

And so it goes. The whole record defies easy categorization, like jazz probably should if it's to retain its teeth. After all, shouldn't the bastard offspring of a dozen genres remain as volatile and unpredictable as possible; like a cornered possum, perhaps? Yes. Yes, it should.

Charlie explores his softer side on "Ballad," a laid-back piano bar number that's sure to melt the mints in your pocket. But if you prefer your jazz with more balls, you're in luck, since "Balls" is the next track, carrying on a Charlie Hunter tradition of nasty, middlebrow double entendre. Ah, the beauty of naming instrumental songs. Don't even ask about "Wizard Sleeve."

"Balls" is dirty lo-fi at its best, with huge crashing drums, fuzzy guitar, and Hammond-ized Casio that owe more to Lynyrd Skynrd than anything in the Impulse catalog.

The aforementioned "Wizard Sleeve" comes on seriously funky, quickly melds into deranged Blow by Blow fusion, and then simply goes batshit crazy, with dissonant melodies and syncopated drumming trading back and forth with keyboard-driven psychedelics. The "Wheels On Fire" keyboard break and blues guitar lead on "Drop a Dime" come out of nowhere, just as you ease into a comfortable cushion of inertia. Every time you try to get a handle on it, Mistico eludes and surprises.

The drum solos, spy-movie car chase music and old-time radio sound effects of "Spoken Word" lull you into a cloud of weirdness just in time for "Special Shirt," an ecstatic blast of sunshiny keyboards and wah-wah guitar that's sure to relieve even the most stick-in-butt-related apathy.

The title track is a trippy, shapeless trance, with chimes, well-placed harmonics, and an arsenal of chill keyboard sounds. In other words, it actually sounds "mystical," which must be a naming first for Hunter. "Dirty Sanchez" must have been taken. That being said, he's right back on the non sequitur train with "Chimp Gut," an almost-country romp that will get under your saddle and stay there.

And that, friends, is what Charlie Hunter has been up to for the past two and a half years-purging himself of what's expected from Charlie Hunter. It's nasty, it's rough, and it's anything but straightforward. It's evolution and devolution. It's pure Charlie Hunter, and it's a Charlie Hunter you've never heard. It's jazz, barely and completely.

Charlie Hunter Trio - 'Mistico' in stores & online July 31.

-Drop A Dime
-Speakers Built In

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