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Charlie Hunter: Living the Music

By Published: September 26, 2005
AAJ: I like the Charlie Hunter Trio. I think your music works well in a trio setting. I like the spaciousness of the sound the three of you get; there's always air in there, even if someone is playing a lot. Is that spaciousness the reason you choose to work in a trio nowadays?

CH: It's funny, because I had a quintet, which I really loved doing because it was just so fun to be behind such a powerhouse. And I just ended up losing tons of money. I had a great time, but I just couldn't do it. Bush-onomics made me get back to the trio again. But the silver lining got bigger and bigger all the time and I realized that this really is my most natural milieu to function in.

When we first did it, we were like, "oh my god, what happened to all our sound? Where's everything? And then as we played more and more as a trio, it became more and more of a situation where we realized we really knew how to use the fourth member of the group—that space. The thing about the trio is that it's the biggest sound you can have with the smallest unit. So you can really stop on a dime and take it in directions that you just can't with an extra person.

AAJ: You guys actually work that "stop-on-a-dime thing—on a song like "One For the Kelpers there are those built-in start/stops in the groove.

CH: Right, exactly. And our whole thing is based on having the rhythmic thing—like everything I do, really. But we'll try to do decelerandos, accelerandos. Some of the accelerandos are my fault and they're not supposed to be there; they just happen that way [laughing].

AAJ: Yes, every beginning musician is very skilled at accelerando, whether he knows it or not.

CH: Exactly. But we try to do those kinds of things that take whatever the music gives to a bigger space.

AAJ: Well, before I learned that John was now playing more instruments than I had thought, I was going to say just how happy I am that he plays bass clarinet and flute in addition to tenor. I love the tune "Darkly, which is a flute feature for him.

CH: Oh yeah, he played great on that!

AAJ: There's something about flute over rhythmic music that is classic.

CH: Yes, it brings the Middle Eastern thing to mind.

AAJ: I also love your comping over John's playing. At times he even comps over you, which is considerably more difficult.

CH: Oh, that I like. That's my favorite thing.

AAJ: So you enjoy comping over him?

CH: Yeah, I love it. But I've come to the point in my evolution on the instrument where I realize that I can't play the same stuff that just a guitarist or organ player would play—and I need to embrace that in a big way. If you're using that Friends Seen and Unseen record as a reference, I think my comping has changed a lot since then, because I've really been getting into the idea of hearing the chords more as sounds and less as extreme jazz harmony. So I'm trying to deal with putting comping behind John that not only puts my instrument in a different space, but also puts him in an unusual space.

So instead of playing whole chords behind him, I'll play more of an involved bass line, and maybe put a fuzz on with an organ sound, or a fuzz with a tremolo sound, and play single notes or two notes behind him, very low. Or I'll do things that just try to texturalize the things while outlining the chord changes. I realized that this is 2005. Everyone that's going to be at my show has heard a dominant seventh chord before. They've heard a thirteenth chord before. So when I play certain things on the bass with root movement, whatever it is, that's already implied, so I don't necessarily feel any extreme need to play the whole chord.

AAJ: That's sort of belaboring the point.

CH: Well, sometimes. Sometimes you can and it'll be really awesome. But I'm not Ted Green. I wish I could have that facility, but I don't have that. So I have to use what I have, which is the rhythmic thing; I have to paint with those two-note, three-note chords, single-note comping—those kinds of things. And I love having one single horn comping behind me! I love that sound, and John does a great job of it. That's the thing that we said about the horn before: it's a focus issue. It's like a singer versus a drummer. If a drummer's playing a drum beat, and a singer starts singing, what do you think the audience is going to do?

AAJ: Listen to the singer.

CH: Everyone's going to focus on the singer. It's the same thing with the horn; like I was saying, the horn is like our version of the operatic tenor. It completely, in that lyrical way, overpowers everything on the stage in terms of focus. So it's really hard for a horn player to comp. But I'm totally into trying to switch those paradigms around and find a little magic space where that works, and try to mine that.

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