Charlie Hunter takes his mp3 player on the road, but at home in New Jersey the guitarist turns to the turntable. "I listen to a lot of music on vinyl, from the Blue Note and Verve jazz eras," he said one morning last month while balancing a telephone receiver and his four-month-old baby.
The music Hunter listens to provides the largest inspiration for his own compositions. "You spend so much time listening to music in your life that hopefully [the music you're writing is] coming from that well of what you've listened to."
While the sounds from the speakers evoke images of pre-digital recording studios, and smoky ‘60s nightclubs, Hunter, with his custom-made eight-string guitar, is crusading his own style of jazz into the third millennium. It's a kind of jazz sprung from tradition, yet delightfully trimmed with Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, and Brazilian melodies and rhythms. It relies on the freedom of improvisation, but rarely gets bogged down in the intangible language understood only by those playing. Hunter's music seems made for dancing, which translates to audience approval to the highest degree.
Last month at the Mercury Lounge, Hunter plugged away at his eight-string guitar, his face contorting in those strange, passionate ways guitarist's faces do. Soloing over his own bass lines, he transposed an energy through the clench of sound coming from his instrument, to the sweaty, energetic, young audience crowding the floor.
With Gregoire Maret on harmonica, John Ellis on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Derek Philips on drums, Hunter's vigorous, vivacious new album, Right Now Move (his first for Ropeadope), continues the pattern he began 10 years ago with his debut The Charlie Hunter Trio.
"We had three days to record it. But the first day, there were so many technical problems with the headphones and the amplifiers, that we didn't get anything done. The second day, we had more problems. Finally we were able to get two tunes recorded. That night they erased one of them, so we had to record the rest of the record the next day," Hunter explained.
The immediacy of a jazz quintet - and the enjoyment of a group recording together for the first time - comes through in songs like "Oakland", complete with background whooping and hollering. The song is a tribute to the San Francisco Bay Area where Hunter grew up.
Hunter bought his first guitar for seven dollars at age 12. Lessons with Joe Satriani, and gigs with various bands around the Bay Area helped develop his style. An attraction to both the bass and guitar led Hunter to develop a seven-string hybrid that allowed him to play both parts simultaneously. He grabbed his new instrument and headed for Europe where he lived day by day as a street musician.
"When you're playing on the street you have to perform, play and get people to stop and give you money. I was just learning how to play and get my craft together. It helps to play 10 to 12 hours a day to do that," he explained.
Musical progression is a constant for Hunter, who decided to add one more bass string to his guitar 12 years ago. "There's always something you can work toward musicianship-wise," he said, "There's always more work you can do, whether you think your time is good, or your hearing of intervals is good, there's always progress to be made."
Lately, progress has taken the form of percussion. A few years ago Hunter took up the pandeiro, a Brazilian instrument resembling a tambourine, but with a tunable head and "drier jingles".
"It's a hard instrument. It's very specific to itself. I went down to Brazil and got a few lessons from this guy Mestra Tata (who inspired the first track on Right Now Move ). He taught me a lot. From there I thought I should see if I can get something together on this instrument."
By the looks of Hunter's Mercury Lounge show, he's been successful at "getting something together." The role of educator as well as entertainer has fallen into his hands with the inclusion of the pandeiro in his live show. Shimmying rhythms thrilled the crowd, and the added percussion only incited more dancing.
It's easy to call Hunter's music jazz, but the guitarist's experience and influence spans genres. He discovered how the superstars of pop music feel, when he toured with rapper Michael Franti's Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, opening for U2 in stadiums across the country. He covered Nirvana on his 1995 Blue Note debut Bing, Bing, Bing and ventured into reggae with 1997's rendering of Bob Marley's Natty Dread. Songs from the Analog Playground (2001) featured original vocals by rapper Mos Def, and Norah Jones sings Roxy Music's "More Than This".