One could take the title of drummer McClenty Hunter Jr.’s debut album as a leader, The Groove Hunter (Strikezone Records), in two ways. Either Hunter is the one chasing the groove to conquer and subdue it, or he himself is the groove. It’s a tough call to decide which interpretation is more apt.

First off, the Juilliard-trained Hunter is without question a master of the pocket. On his version of Wayne Shorter’s “The Big Push,” Hunter rivets the pulse into the floor while his horn trio—Stacy Dillard on tenor sax, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, and Donald Harrison on alto sax—cycles through the tune’s surprising harmonic tensions. Then, on “Sack Full of Dreams,” Hunter’s nod to mentor Grady Tate (who popularized the song), he lays back into a soul-inspired feel, leaving guitarist Dave Stryker, his co-producer and longtime collaborator, free to explore the sweeter spots in the melody. And on “Countdown” he smashes open the John Coltrane/Wilbur Harden classic with a solo so energized that Harrison’s only possible response is his own fevered sax solo.

But on his four originals Hunter reveals a more vulnerable, more personal musical self. On these tracks Hunter favors intros with subdued percussive lines, a conversational tone between the players, and strong dynamic builds that explode in spirited celebration before settling back into introspection. Helping Hunter to establish this musical arc are the fleet-fingered pianist Eric Reed and emotive bassist Corcoran Holt, who sink into intense reveries when soloing—especially on the ardent “My Love” and the mellifluent “Give Thanks,” respectively.

In the category of above-and-beyond, Hunter brings together Stryker, keyboardist Christian Sands, and bassist Eric Wheeler on a stoked version of Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl.” While Hunter plays a shuffle behind them, these players race on, galvanized by the thrill of the chase.

(Reprinted from the August 2018 issue of Downbeat magazine.)