Charlie Hunter: Roots, Hard Work & Inspiration

Doug Collette By

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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.

Chapter Index


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 stuff—I 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."

Charlie Hunter—Not Getting Behind is the New Getting AheadAAJ: After awhile, I'm sure what you've processed becomes wholly your own and you can then reveal that to the world as you choose to do so.

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 wrong—just 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.

Hard, Hard Work

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 that—write 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.
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