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?
CH: No, you can make the big gestures yourself. So much of what I'm trying to do with my instrument is about the pocket and the time. If you really get to a point where you're really in the pocket, you can have a thing that's like (sings bass line, with guitar solo and finger snaps on the downbeat) you can make these little gestures. You can hold one note for a long time and you can play these lines that are bigger gestures because they are more rhythmically powerful, whereas if you're constantly playing tons and tons of eighth notes, which is a lot of people's stock and trade, then, well, that's just another way of doing it, right?
AAJ: Obviously you're a very prolific artist, 17 albums and only 42 years old, that's heck of a lot for a mid-career artist...
CH: Mid-career, the worst place to be in America. Mid-career, when you're playing your best, you're making your best music, and you can't get the dog to play with you unless you tie a pork chop around your neck. You know what I mean? [laughs]
AAJ: No, what do you mean?
CH: Well, it's just that we live in a youth-obsessed society and we're also living in a time where the music culture has morphed into the image culture. Music, when I was growing up, was always considered such a deep thing, that it existed on its own plane. There was always a little bit of the image thing, which is why someone like Pat Boone can't outsell someone like Little Richard, you know. But now in popular culture the music accounts for less and less. And when I look at the stuff that my kids are into, the music is just sad but the image they produce is pretty incredible. The videos, the shows, the style, the scene, it's all incredibly superficial but amazingly superficial. It's an incredible veneer, you know? So when you're 42 years old and you come from a culture that isn't about that, you can pretty much forget it entirely, which is OK because I'm not interested in the image scene... Guys and gals my age, we like making and playing instrumental music. I mean, we have a snowballs chance in hell of getting rich, but it sure is fun. I wouldn't trade it.
AAJ: Was there a period, back when you were first starting out, when you had to be more mindful of appearance and all that?
CH: Well, there was a time when I was a hired musician in this band called The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which had a small amount of fabulousness associated with their name in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I was really just a fly on the wall because I was only performing a function, you know, playing the guitar and the bass. I wasn't a star. And we were on the road with very popular bands like Arrested Development and Public Enemy, all the big Hip-Hop acts at that time, and then we went on tour opening for U2. So I got that out of my system early. It's like when you get all the candy on Halloween and your parents either ration it out to you or they let you eat the whole bag. So I ate the whole bag and got really sick. [laughs] But it was a great experience to see that the scene and understand that being the star is really good for a certain kind of personality. But it's not for me. I don't really enjoy it. I think it is kind of an illusion and when it's over, no one will really remember it because there's nothing actual to it. It's dust.
AAJ: But that experience did give you some exposure, right?
CH: Not really. I pretty much quit Hiphoprisy in the middle of their thing because I couldn't stand it anymore. And so I went back to moving furniture during the day and playing fairly low-paying gigs at night... At that point, I had my own group and we played a lot around the [(San Francisco] Bay Area. In the mid-1990s, there was this interesting thing happening with improvised music out there, an interest in what would be euphemistically called "urban," meaning anything that wasn't in the hallowed halls of "jazzness." So the record companies came looking for us and there was a big feeding frenzy, the last gasp of the old way of doing things...
The record companies liked the fact that there were a lot of guys my age who were really into the music and weren't just into playing straight ahead jazz. I think they saw that there was a possibility of "crossing-over" and selling that music to younger people. Which proved to be true, although not as much as the record companies had hoped for, but enough for people like me to make a living. And it's been great. I have to say that I'm having more fun now than I've ever had oddly enough. I get to play with these great musicians and I'm done with the worrying-about-being-young-and-accepted phase. I am what I am, I do what I do. Take it or leave it.
AAJ: How did you feel when you finally got the Blue Note record deal? Was that a big moment for you?
CH: Oh, it was huge. At that time, we were being courted by Warner Bros, Interscope, Blue Note and few others. In retrospect, I could have gone much bigger had I chosen one of the other labels. But I chose Blue Note because I liked all the records that were on it and they gave me a bunch of free records. And also Bruce Lundvall was a real person. He came from an era that I could really respect a lot more than the other labels we were being courted by.
AAJ: Did you see Blue Note at that time as the jazz seal of approval?
CH: Absolutely. Yeah, we wanted nothing more than that, even though we maybe didn't realize it. We were maybe too "grubby and street" for that. It's ok. Ultimately you just make your own thing.
AAJ: Have your priorities changed now that you've settled down in Montclair, NJ with the wife and kids? Is much of your time spent being a family man?
CH: Yeah, especially with the economy being what it is, there are a lot less gigs. So I find new and inventive ways of making rice and beans, you know, and take care of the kids. But I also spend a lot of time on the road like I always have, doing mostly doing duo setups now with just me and a drummer, although sometimes trio setups when it's affordable.
AAJ: Do you prefer to play smaller, more intimate venues? I mean, there was surprisingly a lot of sound from the duo sessions at Rose Live Music.
CH: Yeah, thanks. I love that kind of scene. But I'll play anywhere and I usually do. I'm at the point in my career where I'll go play a gig somewhere and have to sweep the cigarette butts off the stage and make sure everything is clean enough for a human being to inhabit. Then I'll do other gigs that are simply amazing, like somewhere in Europe, playing in a 19th century opera house. And everything in between.
AAJ: Do you prefer that duo setup?
CH: No, I mean, it's fun. I've really been working on a solo thing, to make it interesting, to not think so much. Back in the '90s, when I was beginning with the guitar and bass thing, there was a real emphasis put on difficulty, even in jazz. Can you play the odd time signatures, can you play the fast passage, can you do this bebop passage with this bass line? And I had that youthful energy where I was ready to run up a mountain with a boulder on my back and the band clenched in my teeth, you know what I mean?
So I spent a lot of time trying to work out this really complex stuff. And sometimes it came off well. It was always impressive, the way that youth is impressive, all that energy, it doesn't have to be terribly well executed. But now I understand that all of the guitar flashiness is not necessary, that's not a big part of what makes this thing really run effectively. What makes it run effectively is the drum aspect of it, in that you really have to always be in the pocket with both sides of it. And if you want to make the bass a little bit behind and the guitar a little bit ahead, that's fine. But I spend a lot of my time just listening to the interdependence of the parts and realizing that's where it all flows from.
CH: Well, I've always played drums, I like to play the drums. A lot of my contemporaries just took off way ahead of me on their instruments. And for what I do, there's so much more difficulty technically in terms of the sheer amount of combinations you have to learn, left-hand combinations, right-hand combinations and putting those two together. It's just taken a lot longer... but I think I'm finally coming to a point where this instrument is really starting to make a lot of sense and become something special that you wouldn't be able to do on a guitar or bass separately. And that's the real part, that's really what I wake up for.
AAJ: But what was the origin of the technique?
CH: Well, it's always been happening. As street musician in Europe, I always had to be very self-sufficient, and this is going back twenty years, because I played in a lot of bands on the street and you never knew if you would have to do it all yourself and backup a singer. So it started from that and I played a lot of acoustic bass on the street because I was in situation where the guitarists were a lot better than me.
AAJ: Where was this?
CH: In Paris, in Zurich, wherever the money was.
AAJ: And this was when you were really young, right?
CH: I was young, 19, 20, 21 years old. I did it for about three years. So the technique came from that time in Europe and also from growing up around the guitar when I was a kid. I was doing gigs when I was in high school, a lot of gigs. Learning how to play guitar really well was not something that was hard for kids from Berkeley at that time. Everyone played well... There were all these blues guys who I'd played with, who were a lot older, some of whom I can't even remember the names of, who just schooled me. And then you'd have your guitar at school and you'd end up not really playing. I mean, they had the jazz band at Berkeley High when I was a kid and I didn't do the jazz band because I tried out and there were three kids ahead of me who were way better, you know? And I was good, I could play, maybe not so much the jazz stuff, but I could get around.
I had a bunch of friends and we would pass the guitar around all day, "hey did you learn this solo or that solo..." that's just what we did. So by the time, I was 20 I had a good hand at the technical thing on the six string guitar and I was like "how do I put the things together on an instrument to get more of that counterpoint," because I also liked playing the drums and the bass, you know, like all this rhythmic stuff. And I've been very lucky that all the journeys I've gone on musically, whether that be growing up in the Bay Area or being a street-musician or playing with people who you'd never believe how good they were. Just like, man, I've been lucky.
AAJ: So how do you feel like your sound has evolved over time? I know for awhile you were playing with the mimicry of that Hammond organ sound...
CH: Yeah, that was my go-to for a long time. I was really trying to figure out what I was supposed to sound like, how do I fit into this jazz world? I was really impressionable and I really wanted people to like me because I was jazzy. But that was fun, while it lasted. I can't stand that sound now. When I hear my old records with that sound, I want to punch that guy in the face. It sounds so cloying to me.
AAJ: I thought the Hammond Organ sound was an interesting choice since, with the guitar/bass technique, it's almost as if you're treating the guitar as a keyboard itself...
CH: I mean, that's definitely where it came out of. I already had that guitar stuff down, it wasn't that exciting to me. I guess I was rebelling against that. Also at that point, you really had to have "a sound" and I thought the Hammond organ sound was good to accompany horns. I was always playing with horns at the time. I was really the guy who wrote the music and I would take solos but the real soloists were the horn players. Yeah, so it was a way to differentiate myself... It was just about that time and place. I wouldn't do it now.
AAJ: So how do you think your sound has evolved now?
CH: Um, it's definitely simpler and more old-school sounding. I don't have any effects anymore, I just plug straight into the guitar and usually play a really low-wattage amp, like I use these Headstrong Lil' Kings, which is essentially a Princeton, and I usually turn it up to 7 or 8 and just go from there by using my fingers. Generally, I just try to play simply and make it really be about the interplay between bass and the guitar parts. That's really what makes or breaks it, in the same way that when Clyde Stubblefield plays a beat or even Elvin Jones, it's about the interdependence of all the parts. For me, the interdependence of those parts is where I tell the story from. Back in the early days, I tried to tell the story from playing these deep lines and I never was very good at that. But I know I finally understand that it sounds the best when the story comes from that counterpoint between those parts, and the beat and the rhythm and the pocket. It helps to have soul, too. [laughs]
CH: I never really thought about it in those terms. I just do what I do. Since so much of what I do revolves around the rhythm and the blues and soul music and stuff like that, I think there's automatically an accessible aspect to it. Also the fact that you have an instrument that, although it is very different from a guitar, it has that guitar sound that people are very used to. And that's a window through which they can get into the music. You can never plan for that. If you start planning for that, it's over. If you try writing music in terms of a specific audience, you're pretty much doomed.
AAJ: People also come for the magic of seeing you play. There's a certain awe to it, walking into that room and being like "Wait a minute, it sounds like there's another bassist or guitarist in the background there..."
CH: Yeah, I don't think about that so much. I don't try to like dazzle people, because that's a dead end. It's not going to go anywhere if you're not using your "super-powers" for good. But yeah, I don't know. I'd be happy to play these 200-seaters forever. I don't need to go be fabulous, I don't need to go on TV, I don't have any interest in it and the culture that promotes it is a waste of my time... I hang out with the smartest, coolest, most interesting and ambitious people on a daily basis. And I've already been there and found it lacking, found it wanting. Right now, I'm just making a living and breaking even. I'd certainly like to do more than that ultimately. But right now, it kind of works. I mean, damn, I play instrumental, improvised music and I can make a living. To me, that's a huge accomplishment.
AAJ: What advice would you have for younger jazz musicians? There's a whole crop of jazz musicians that are growing up now and there's a renewed enthusiasm for jazz among us them.
CH: When I do hear the younger musicians, I hear a lot of like "math jazz." The younger generation, they come from generally a very specific socioeconomic background through which they've been able to go to these music schools that are very expensive. Then when you get out of these colleges, there's no work, you know? So it's kind of a failed paradigm in that respect. And it's no fault of theirs because that system doesn't exist anymore, where you come up and people beat on you and you learn how to play with depth and you learn how to put on a show. None of them know how to put on a show. And I don't mean put on a show, like a minstrel show or some corny kind of thing. I mean put on a show like connect with audience, make the bigger thing happen. It's like a mile wide and an inch deep.
There's lots of incredible concepts going on, there's lots of incredible instrumental virtuosity going on, all this really commendable stuff but at the end of the day, it ends up falling a little flat because there's no community component. The only jazz community seems to be the community of musical pedants, guys and gals who went music school and have amassed this incredibly large amount of knowledge. But it's also very myopic, and every time you go to see it, it's like going to see a recital. That's just the surface of it, though. How do you figure out what works better? How do you connect with the audience? How do you have soul?
AAJ: The older community is not there anymore is what you're saying... the people who used to beat on the younger musicians?
CH: Yeah, there's not that system of the young guys getting schooled by the older guys. They get schooled in schools. And I think that's really great for making music that is of and about jazz, but it never really moves me. I mean, I'm always as a musician impressed, but I just don't like to listen to music to be impressed as a musician. I want to go out and listen to music like everyone else does, to hear music that connects with them and puts them on a different plane, you know?
AAJ: Why do you think that older community is not there?
CH: Because they're dead. Most of them are gone, you know.
AAJ: Who used to beat on you when you were coming up as a musician?
CH: When I was coming up, it wasn't jazz guys, it was all the older kind of blues and R&B guys I was playing with, and then when I was a street-musician there were a lot of these different people that were much better than me. I mean, I didn't go to music school. I went to a little community college for theory and harmony. I used to have that as a chip on my shoulder, but now I thank my stars that I was able to have that wide variety of experiences, because it made me the musician I am.
AAJ: So what would be your advice be to these young people who are coming out of these schools?
CH: What you do always needs to extend beyond the culture of musicians. If the music you make is only made within the culture of musicians, and that is satisfying to you, then go for it. But generally I think music serves a larger purpose, it's got to be more than just that. AAJ:What is that larger purpose to you?
CH: Connecting outside of yourself. I mean it doesn't have to be on a grand scale. Think about the pop music during the 1960s, and The Beatles and how everyone could relate to that. I mean that's huge, that's gigantic. I mean I'm 42, you're 27 but if I say "Sgt. Peppers" you and I could get into a conversation right now about everything on Sgt. Peppers. That kind of music can bring two completely differently people totally together. And as you get smaller, I say Stanley Turrentine to you, maybe you'd know that or maybe you wouldn't. But if you and I get into a conversation on a Stanley Turrentine album, then that brings these two people who never knew each other closer together. And I feel that's what you're trying to do with music, trying to get people to communicate with each other and with you on this level that is really very deep and non-verbal. There is no next level intellectually, I don't think that's the thing. At least for me, my thing is to always find the balance between the intellectual and the visceral.
Charlie Hunter, Baboon Strength (Spire Artists, 2008)
Charlie Hunter, Mistico (Fantasy, 2007)
Groundtruther, Altitude (Thirsty Ear, 2007)
Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte, The Coalition of the Willing (Ropeadope, 2006)
Charlie Hunter, Copperopolis (Ropeadope, 2006)
Garage A Trois, Outre Mer (Telarc, 2005)
Groundtruther, Longitude (Thirsty Ear, 2005)
Charlie Hunter, Steady Groovin: the Blue Note Groove Sides [compilation] (Blue Note, 2005)
Groundtruther, Latitude (Thirsty Ear, 2004)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Friends Seen and Unseen (Ropeadope, 2004)
Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte, Come in Red Dog, This is Tango Leader (Ropeadope, 2004)
Charlie Hunter Quintet, Right Now Move (Ropeadope, 2003)
Garage A Trois, Emphasizer (Tone Cool, 2003)
Charlie Hunter Quartet, Songs From the Analog Playground (Blue Note, 2001)
Charlie Hunter, Solo Eight-String Guitar (Contra Punto, 2000)
Charlie Hunter, Charlie Hunter (Blue Note, 2000)
Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker, Duo (Blue Note, 1999)
Charlie Hunter and Pound for Pound, Return of the Candyman (Blue Note, 1998)
Charlie Hunter Quartet, Natty Dread (Blue Note, 1997)
Charlie Hunter Quartet, Ready, Set, Shango! (Blue Note 1996)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Bing, Bing, Bing! (Blue Note, 1995)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Charlie Hunter Trio (Prawn Song, 1993)