Charlie Hunter: Roots, Hard Work & Inspiration
A self-proclaimed boutique artist, guitarist Charlie Hunter could not be more proud of his work or the audience that enjoys it. He is ultimately modest about his achievements, such as they are, emphasizing the work he's put in over the years in a variety of formats, honing a craft he honestly and rightly believes represents his own unique voice on a very unique instrument: the seven-string guitar.
Charlie Hunter used an eight-string instrument for a number of years, though, hearkening first of all to the 1995 formation of the unsung jazz-fusion quartet TJ Kirk. Hunter's Blue Note era included Trio and Quartet ensembles recorded prior to debut of the stellar Pound for Pound ensemble, featuring vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Multiple collaborations with drummer extraordinaire Bobby Previte occurred simultaneous with other ongoing and ever-changing combos, through all of which Charlie Hunter's sound remained distinctive. It is no less so, perhaps even more so than ever, on his collaboration with drummer and kindred spirit Scott Amendola, Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead and, not surprisingly, during the course of the following conversation.
AAJ: I wanted to ask about the sequence of events that led to your new album, (Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead), getting recorded and completed.
Charlie Hunter: These are tunes that I had been working on off and on for the last couple years, since my last original record, which we're looking at... three years ago at this point. It's one of those things where, as you get older, you're constantly refining your thing; you ending up going to things you knew when you were younger.
AAJ: We go back to touch base and reaffirm our roots
CH: I realized, because I'm an eternal student of music and rhythm and the guitar, not just the jazz vernacular, but the guitar vernacular as well, which is an incredibly important thing to me because that's how I came up. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by guitar players, my mom included: she repaired guitars. And in her youth, in the late fifties and early sixties, she was in Greenwich Village. She hung out in all of the folk music scenes, which for her meant following around Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and all those various and sundry characters. So when I as a kid, that was the music that was always on in our house. That was the soundtrack of my youth. So when I was a kid I'd be mortally embarrassed when this music would be playing [laughs].
AAJ: In retrospect, I can see what you mean. But in the long run, it sure worked out to your advantage and that of your audience, wouldn't you say?
CH: Yeah, I realized that, in terms of the guitar, a lot of that is where I come from. I remember being a young guy as a street musician in Europe and playing with all these incredible musicians from around the world; I'd play some little blues thing and they'd be "What's that!?!?..How do you do that!?!?" And I'd go "You don't know how to do that? I thought everybody knew how to do that?" It's just from my upbringing and, long story short, it's just all that stuff. There's that whole thing that, when you get into the jazz world, it's very hard, even if you're just a straight-up old six-string guitarist, you're at best a redheaded stepchild, especially in today's jazz world. I really feel in a lot of ways, in terms of getting a foundation in music and understanding harmony and rhythm, there's no better way to get such a comprehensive education, even if you're like me and you didn't go to music school and you got it on the fly. But then you have to realize what instrument you're playing and what you want to do and which audience you want to connect with. For me, so much of it is having that jazz language and being able to understand how that works, but not worrying about playing the stuff that, if you're a horn player, you have to play. I don't have to play that stuffI don't play that instrument. I love Joseph Spence as much, if not more, than I like Wes Montgomery. I love Albert King maybe more than I like John Coltrane... sometimes. I love Motown. Sometimes I like Stax a lot more than I like Blue Note. It's the same to me and it's a matter if you come to that point where you've checked out enough music and you get old enough to realize "Wait a minute. I need to do what is honestly the kind of stuff that I don't have to think about."
CH: Totally. And especially as you're coming up. As I was getting into the jazz world on guitar, I'm going "I'm not learning enough. I'm not shredding enough. I'm not playing enough odd time signatures. I'm not doing all of these things" And I realized, for me, that's stuff that's de rigueur today amongst the younger generation, and I think it's de rigueur because they feel rightfully, incredibly disenfranchised from the older music. And that they feel like "Well, our sound is..." Because they're generally from very educated backgrounds, with money involved and it doesn't mean they don't have full right to contribute with the music they want. But what they're doing with this intensely dense kind of music that draws so much from Indian music and the odd time signatures and mathematics, with incredibly dense harmonies and stuff, I realize it's just not something I really have an affinity for. And when I say that, I don't say that it's wrong. Because how are you going to say Indian music is "wrong"?
AAJ: Not wrongjust different.
CH: It is different. And I hear some of these young guys playing and I go "Wow, that's ridiculous. I could never play that!" And then I realize, "What do I have an affinity for?" And I realize it's just the rhythm and the time, the blues, space. And trying to make the gestures I can make, that are bigger gestures over a much, much simpler palette, that make much more sense to me-honestly. That's a really long and roundabout way of saying it, but this record hopefully will be able to exhibit that.
AAJ: I've heard it said and written that, often in different terminology, that it's much more difficult to play simply and allow space to evolve from your playing than it really it to play dense, fast and in grand flurries of notes. Do you feel that's the case?
CH: I think I do, but then again, it depends on what you are more naturally and honestly inclined towards. I think it's a life-long pursuit. And if you do the homework, in this day and age, because there are no gatekeepers, it's a good thing and a bad thing: everyone and their mother's uncle is now a singer/songwriter, but how come when you listen to Elliot Smith and listen to 99 percent of the stuff that's out there now, Elliott Smith is just so much better. Why is that? Because... Certain people are going to find what they have an affinity for and do it. Like you said about flurries of notes: I don't want to say whether it's harder or easier, I just think the hard thing really is to find what you have an affinity for and if it happens to be not hip and not cool, and you still apply yourself to that and you work really, really hard at it and you develop a voice at it, that's the hardest thing.
The thing of the day is, these 25 year-old kids are inheriting a music industry that is basically like Dresden after World War II; they're not going to win points by being subtle playing the blues because they're trying to carve out a niche for themselves as well as they can. That requires a lot of intellectual jousting, a lot of trying to get grants, trying to get the guy at the New York Times to like you and write about you. If you just really play the blues convincingly and you're twenty-five, you have my greatest appreciation. Because everything is completely not in your favor for that.
AAJ: That's a fascinating perspective from a lot of different angles. When we talk about musicians developing style or a music lover developing taste, it's got to be some combination of their upbringing and their roots and the culture in which they develop. And certainly the culture now, in a broad sense, is a lot different than the culture when you were in Europe playing in the streets. Would you agree? Just thinking in terms of the noise level: I'm staring at my computer and thinking how many people are on the internet right now, they could be playing guitar instead of being on the internet, but they're not. Still, there's static in the air that gets in the way of hearing someone who's playing, whether it's simply or in great flurries of notes.
CH: I would say though especially for younger people, older people, it doesn't really matter. It's just like meritocracy in America: the more money you have, the less merit you need. So, if you have very little money, you have to have a lot, lot, lot of merit just to crack the ice. I feel like if you don't have that merit...I tell my kids: "You know your dad's a musician, you're not gonna be wealthy in terms of obvious material things, yet I feel like I can provide you some wealth and perspective that perhaps other parents can't do."
If you think of it that way, hard work as a musician is the most important thing, even if you know, that there are hundreds of people who aren't going to work as hard as you because they already have an unfair advantage in having a lot of money behind them to allow them to go to the head of the line in terms of publicity. Then you have to just work really, really hard at your craft, whatever it is: if you're a singer/songwriter work hard at thatwrite better and more personal songs.
If you're a guy like me, you just have to realize your own known quantity and then you have to work at that really, really, really hard: if anyone ever tunes in to your metaphorical radio station you have fifty-thousand watts playing loud and clear.
AAJ: That's a great way to put it. That's a nice segue too into a question I had about the (new) material: you said it developed over a couple years. When did you discover there was a theme to itthat was so fully realized on the album- about the changes in the culture and how it's related to the economy and how that affects people?
CH: I'm 45 years old and I've been playing gigs since I was fifteen years old. And I'd say I've spent the last twenty years traversing the states. I don't think there's a single county road I haven't been on [laughs] in this country, you know? And because I do every gig and that gives an interesting fly-on-the-wall perspective in terms of socio-economic changes the country goes through. And I don't think of myself as a jazz musician; as I play every gig between New York and LA, I took great pains early in my career to get in a van and do what all those punk-rockers do and do what Duke Ellington did and what Count Basie did, the territory bands and stuff like that.
I've seen the changes that affect all the different parts of the country and seen things change from town to town and from thing to thing. I definitely see the way the country has changed and I am originally from Berkeley California, so you know my background is going to be something of a left-of-center background, but I've got a lot of respect for everyone's viewpoint and everyone's perspective.
AAJ: That must come from being on that road and seeing all the people that live on the road, along the side of the road.
CH: Yes and the whole thing with this record wasand it's very abstract in those terms-but in a lot of ways, it's like a person making French-speaking documentaries for the English-speaking public. But if you meet it half way, the whole concept of it is that it is artists, and musicians especially, doing what they do ,in terms of being able to direct the current state of affairs back to the audience in a non-verbal way that allows them to put it in their basket of humanity-affirming or reality-check kind of things. It's just me as a tiny, tiny, little link in an enormous chain saying, "Well, here's my impression of where we are right now." I'm going to do it through what I know, which is the prism of American music.
AAJ: You do it in a very artful way. Even given my taste: I don't like to be knocked over the head with someone making their point and so going at things at an oblique angle, using suggestion is a more forceful than "making a statement." I'm looking at the song titles and they're very thoughtprovoking in terms of what you've just talked about. "There Used to be a Night Club There" and now there isn't. "Ghost Mall": I worked in a mall when I first got out of collegeI worked in a record storeand it was a great big deal, but that mall doesn't exist anymore. "Economy with Dignity": that could be the title of a speech at a political convention.
AAJ: As you were recording the tunes and putting it together, was there a logic to the sequence of songs that you applied to it or not?
CH: I'd be shining you on if I said it was and to be totally honest, the guy who engineered it, Dave McNair, is really brilliant. He's a guy our age who was a recording engineer back when there was such a thing. He's been there awhile. We basically went in and recorded this in a way they recorded in the fifties. I just let him do the sequencing when he was mastering. Whatever Dave feels works, you know?
AAJ: He did a good job because the sequence of titles alternate something evocative like "Rust Belt" with something lighthearted like the title song. "Assessing the Assessment, An Assessor's Assessment:" that's the title of a PowerPoint across the country, I'm sure!
CH: You better believe it! [laughs]
AAJ: It seems, given the thought that went into this, and your working with McNair, it's seem remarkable looking at the credits here, it was recorded in just two days back in May of this year. You and (drummer) Scott Amendola must've really gotten into a groove real quick. Or rediscovered the groove you established years agowould that be more appropriate?
CH: I think some of both because when you've played with someone off and on for twenty years, you definitely develop a deep rapport. And when I do a record like this, I'm not telling Scott "Hey play this; hey do that!" This is Scott Amendola: I'm just going to say "This is the title of the tunego for it." We played these songs a bunch on a tour before we did the record, so you know I don't want to brag, but we probably could've done this record all in one day if we needed to. But I wanted to pay the extra money, so that there would be a relaxed vibe; creative instrumental improvised music is already a hard sell and I never want to get into the vibe whereand I've played on records like thisyou've done it too cool for school, the overarching concept of which is play as hard as you can. To do that creates a sort of alienation.
AAJ: It does. It's like "We dare you to keep up with this...and oh, by the way, let's us players not get too accessible here if we can avoid itby all means!"
CH: I don't like doing that. My whole thing is like not to create absurd Disney gestures. Because ultimately, you're trying to tell a story and the stories I'm trying to tell are simple stories and I want to tell them simply, with a lot of space, so people can add their feelings to it and be a part of it.
AAJ: Absolutely; that's why it's great that you think in such inclusive rather than exclusive terms. You're inviting people in, either by the melody or the rhythm, or the combination of the two, in any number here. "The Wizard Pounds the Pavement" draws people in as the title gets them thinking about what you're talking about. Even if you may not introduce it, they start thinking about what they're hearing. It never ceases to amaze me how inspiring music can be to get us thinking about things that we otherwise might not be inspired to think about. I don't know if you talked to Scott about this: did you clue him in on the thoughts behind this material before you guys started playing it?
CH: Totally, totally. Basically what I told him was: the whole concept is: this is an Americana record. Then he starts to screw his face up and I said, "No, this is not the Americana of the mountaintop liberal or the tenured professor that only experiences ten percent of America. This is the Americana that you and I have seen driving across this country for the last twenty years. This is everything from New York City to Youngstown, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi to two 70 year-old guys beating the shit out of each other in front of the Greyhound bus station in Bakersfield California, staying in crazy hotels in El Paso, Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's the whole thing. It's crazy right-wing people, crazy left-wing people, people in the middle, wealthy people, people with next to nothing. The whole darn thing, warts and all."
AAJ: So did his face go from a screwed up expression to a glowing smile and the light bulb went on over his head?
CH: That was it exactly. It was like "Okay!" And that's the only thing I said about the record. No suggestions like, "You should play this beat." He did all that himself and kicked butt entirely, I feel.
AAJ: I don't know if there's a different way for him to play the drums than kicking butt. But that's a whole other conversation. Before you mentioned you had played the numbers on the road, I was going to ask how you made the decisionif it was yours or if you discussed it with him (Amendola)to record this album just as a duo. Was it economics or wanting to do things simply and with maximum space?
CH: It originally had much to do with economics because I went out there with a trio and a quartet and I'm 45 I don't want to go out there and make guys share rooms. But I was just killing myself and making no money at all, realizing I don't want a horn player unless it's a very, very special kind of personality, because I don't want the music to feel weighed down by jazz. I want the jazz part of the music to be selectively used when it's best and most necessary. And I feel like, when you have the sound of the drums and guitar and bass, you have a kind of sonic palette, and especially with all of the vernacular that Scott and I know, it enhances our ability to be really conceptually mobile.
When you play with a lot of horn players, they're coming out of jazz and, nothing against them, that's the world in which they have the most torque. But a lot of times it doesn't allow the bass and drums to get out of that world. With this duo thing it's three-fold: One, is that it's economics: you're touring with a duo and wow you're not going to lose a ton of money. Two, it's conceptual like I was just saying about not having a horn player. Three, a lot of it has to do with the relationship between Scott and myself. So it's about getting the right balance between the intellectual and the visceral.
AAJ: I know you got that on this album. I've been listening to you for a long time and, going through your discography since I got a copy of Not Getting Behind I've heard you playing with horns where they bounce around like you don't hear saxophone players play in jazz. But the twosome reminded me of Duo (Blue Note, 1999), one of the first things of yours I heard, and the show you played with (drummer) Adam Cruz at the old Higher Ground (Vermont venue). There weren't many people there, but I like to think we made up in quality of enjoyment what we lacked in quantity. And to watch you two enjoy yourselves so thoroughly was eye-opening and ear-opening. Is the sensation much the same playing with Scott with whom you have such a relationship?
CH: Yeah we always have a ball. It's always fun no matter what and luckily for us that's what we do and the audience is not coming for us to be brooding and miserable.
AAJ: Nor coming to see windmills or shaking your rear end at the front row either [laughs] which is a refreshing change of pace.
Charlie Hunter, Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead (Independent, 2012)
Charlie Hunter, Public Domain (Independent, 2010)
Ben Goldberg, Go Home (Bag Production, 2010)
Charlie Hunter, Gentlemen, I Regret to Inform You You Will Not be Getting Paid (Spire Artists Media, 2009)
Charlie Hunter, Baboon Strength (Spire Artists Media, 2008)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Mistico (Fantasy, 2007)
Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte/Groundtruther w/John Medeski, Altitude (Thirsty Ear, 2007)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Copperopolis (Spire Artists Media, 2006)
Bobby Previte, Coalition of the Willing (Ropeadope, 2006)
Charlie Hunter/Chinna Smith/Ernest Ranglin, Earth Tones (Breadfruit Music Company, 2005)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Friends Seen and Unseen (Blue Note, 2004)
Garage a Trois, Emphasizer (Tone Cool, 2003)
Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte, Come In Red Dog This Is Tango Leader (Ropeadope, 2003)
Charlie Hunter Quintet, Right Now Move (Ropeadope, 2003)
TJ Kirk, Talking Only Makes It Worse (Ropeadope, 2002)
Charlie Hunter, Solo 8-String Guitar (Contra Punto, 2000)
Mike Clark, Actual Proof (Platform, 2000)
Charlie Hunter/Leon Parker, Duo (Blue Note, 1999)
Charlie Hunter & Pound for Pound, Return of the Candyman (Blue Note, 1998)
Charlie Hunter, Natty Dread (Blue Note, 1997)
Charlie Hunter Quartet, Ready... Set... Shango! (Blue Note, 1996)
Page 1: Greg Aiello
Page 2: Courtesy of Charlie Hunter