Charlie Hunter: Seven-String Samurai

Douglas Wright By

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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 Bobby 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.

Charlie HunterAAJ: Your last album Baboon Strength seemed to be a kind of back-to-basics studio recording...

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?

Charlie HunterCH: 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...

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