Charlie Hunter: Seven-String Samurai
Jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter is not a musician who's comfortable resting on his laurels. With nearly twenty albums under his belt and no sign of stopping in sight, Hunter continues to wow audiences with the wizardry of his seven-string guitar technique, by which he lays down bass grooves and simultaneously wings guitar solos along the frets with flawless finesse. This has earned him a reputation as an intrepid musician and an incredible showman who draws packed crowds into jazz clubs across the U.S. and overseas to see his magic at work. But the razzle dazzle of his unique virtuosity is second fiddle to the music itself. His albums have run the gamut from blues to bebop, free jazz to funk fusion, with Hunter constantly experimenting with new sounds and rhythmic arcs, all the while perfecting that pocket counterpoint between the guitar and bass.
Hunter recently completed a month-long residency at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn, where he was playing a duo series with veteran musicians from his past projects, such as drummer Tony Mason. There, he chatted at length about music culture, his latest album Baboon Strength (Spire, 2008), family life in Montclair NJ, the current jazz scene, and his personal journey from blues guitarist to European street musician to hybrid guitar/bass phenomenon.
All About Jazz: It seems with every album you produce, you're always working with new sounds and new styles, constantly trying to push the music forward...
Charlie Hunter: Yeah, I'm always thinking, "This is what I'm interested in now, how do I put this into my bag and mess with it? How I can work something out with this?"
AAJ: And you'll be recording a new studio album soon, right? What's your focus when you go into the studio? Are you actively composing or just walking in there to see what you and the musicians can come up with?
CH: Well, this record will be really composed, like I wrote tunes for it. They're just songs... they're toony tunes. This record will be about the duo set-up, guitar with drums, and about the instrument itself. But not in a flashy kind of way, more in like a "two drum sets coming together" kind of sound. And then I'll have brass as an accompaniment. There will be improvising, but it won't be that ultra-open thing. To me, it's like a PH scale. I've done everything from completely none-improvised stuff, where you're just playing a groove, and I love that. Then I've done everything in between, like songs generally improvised over a structure, the jazz way of doing things. And then all the way to other side, like the thing I do with Bob Previte which is completely improvised. There's no talking about the music, you just get on and play.
AAJ: Do you still play with Bob Previte? Is the Groundtruther project still ongoing?
CH: Not really. We don't do that anymore. I always try to stay in touch with Bob because he's a great influence on me. That guy's really a master of form and a master of orchestration and composition.
AAJ: Is that part of what keeps this exciting for you? Constantly bringing in new musicians?
CH: Absolutely. It's also nice to have the kickass rolodex and go back and say "Hey I know this guy would be great for this project" or whatever it may be.
CH: Yeah, that's true. But I never overdub on my own records, ever. I always do it live. This new record is going to be even more in that direction because I'm recording it in mono and I'm recording it live-to-tape with very few microphones. It's going to be really old-school. When you spend a lot time working on your pocket and you make a record and everything is stereoized, so much of that time in the pocket gets dispersed, you know? I realized that most of the music I listen to is in mono. So why haven't I ever made a record in mono? And the place that we're recording the new album has all this old equipment. So why not?
AAJ: And what about Baboon Strength? What were you aiming for with that album?
CH: That was really about the working group with Tony Mason and Erik Deutsch. It was really fun band. We really had a sound with that group. The improvisation was based around these kinds of songs, almost taking a lot of cues from Booker T. and the M.G.'s, not playing that kind of music at all, simply taking the idea of instrumental music, very tune-oriented, with this ability to improvise. But instead of improvising in the jazz way, which uses a lot of intense and small gestures, do fewer, larger gestures over bigger amounts of time so that everyone is connected as an ensemble all the time, so no one is ever really out front. And that's what that band was about.
AAJ: So instead of making big gestures yourself, you have a bunch of musicians come together for the big gestures?