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Charlie Hunter: Living the Music

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Whatever our capacity is as musicians, we are serving the music as a whole on stage. If not, then you have to address it. Usually, if your heart is in the right place and youre playing honestly, you would be surprised what people get.
Eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter has stunned audiences for years with his virtuosic ability to play simultaneous bass and guitar lines, sounding at times more like a Hammond organist than a guitarist. The Hammond sound's just one of Hunter's trademark tones, however, and his technical prowess shouldn't stand in the way of appreciating his considerable talents as a composer and bandleader. Whether playing in a quartet, quintet, trio, duo or solo format (he's done plenty of recording and gigging in all these configurations), Hunter's groove-based jazz/rock hybrid is immediately recognizable, and has produced some classic albums.

I spoke with Hunter in the very early days of the New Orleans catastrophe; his management and many musical associates are based there. Fortunately, all had gotten out of the city and were accounted for. We spoke about Hunter's collaborative band Garage à Trois and its excellent new CD, his experimental Groundtruther collaborations with Bobby Previte, the Charlie Hunter Trio, his take on the jamband scene, his thoughts on comping, his much-vaunted bass/guitar technique, and more.

All About Jazz: Let's start by talking about Garage à Trois, the group you're in with drummer Stanton Moore, vibes player Mike Dillon and saxophonist Skerik. I want to start with Garage since the band's soundtrack to the as yet unreleased film by Claus Tontine, Outre Mer, is your newest CD. Did the film inform this music? Were you tailoring the tunes to individual scenes?

Charlie Hunter: You know, I really don't have any idea because I never met the guy. It's all Skerik. Basically, Stanton and Mike and Skerik and I got together and Stanton and I worked out a lot of grooves in the studio. That was our idea, just to put these grooves together—get "A sections and "B sections and just kind of build the music that way. And as far as [Tontine] went, I don't really know—I've never met him, I don't really have any contact with him. I was just down in New Orleans for the week that we recorded it. I wish I could tell you something; I do so much stuff that I'm totally ignorant as to what the thing is even about! [laughing]

AAJ: Well, that really just means that you made a Garage à Trois record. I love the way this band plays together; it's not at all about accompanying solos. It's a quartet where every member is sort of a part of the rhythm section.

CH: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. That's the exact concept behind the music: to take that kind of, I guess whatever you want to call it, jazz sensibility—but not have it be about solos. I mean, in the course of an evening, people will take a solo here and there, but generally it's all about the rhythm of that music. Dealing with the rhythm with everything. That's essentially at least my concept of what that group is.

AAJ: It's all interlocked parts. For example, the title cut to the album, "Outre Mer, is an incredibly polyrhythmic song. It's all stacked rhythms. I notice there are no individual credits on this CD. Are these all group compositions?

CH: Pretty much, yeah. Stanton and I would start with the germ of an idea: I would write some parts, Stanton would have a rhythm part—and then Mike would decide, "okay, this would be a good tune to put tabla on. Or conga, or vibes, or marimba. And then Skerik would add stuff over the top of that.

AAJ: So when I hear extra percussion parts, like on "The Machine —which is my favorite song on the album, just a polyrhythmic behemoth—when I hear any percussion besides Stanton's kit, that's all Mike?

CH: Yeah, that's all Mike. There was very little overdubbing on this record, actually. Other than some horn stuff Skerik did, and a few percussion overdubs Mike did—most of it is live.

AAJ: It's got a very good recorded sound.

CH: Well, that's Mike Napolitano. He's a great engineer.

AAJ: It feels strange to speak of your playing as if it's two instruments, but essentially, that's what you do, and your basslines and Stanton's drums go together very well. How did you two get together?

CH: We have the same manager, and years ago, we played a little bit when his band Galactic came through the Bay Area when I still lived there. And then he called me to do a record date eight or nine years ago. And we've been playing ever since.

AAJ: His playing on "The Dwarf is particularly astonishing; he does these amazing snare rolls—it's like Art Blakey on steroids.

CH: That's the New Orleans second line; that's his forté.

AAJ: Skerik's a pretty unique saxophonist and I especially like his smoky, short breaks on "Etienne. Tell me what you like about playing with him.

CH: For one thing, when you're playing live, he's the guy you want in front of the band. He's indefatiguable; he just goes to this place where he can kind of do no wrong as your frontman. You know what I mean? You just feel like you want to work really hard to make sure that he's safe to do whatever he wants. I'm almost more entertained by what he does than the audience is—and that's not even from a musical standpoint. From a musical standpoint, what's great about him is that most saxophone players—especially in my age group, people in our late thirties—are really interested in the whole tenor tradition and really, really immerse themselves in that. Which I think is great.


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