Charlie Hunter: Seven-String Samurai
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.