Charlie Hunter: Solo Inventions

John Kelman By

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...[Hunter has] become so accomplished that there
Charlie Hunter
Solo Inventions

While Charlie Hunter has already released a concert DVD, Right Now Live! (Ropeadope, 2003), featuring him in solo, trio and quintet settings, Solo Inventions is anything but redundant. First, this 50-minute DVD—produced as part of Original Spin Media's Solo: The Jazz Sessions series—documents Hunter's continued growth on his unique eight-string instrument, combining elements of electric bass and guitar. Second, it includes brief interview segments that shed light on Hunter's development and, perhaps most importantly, how he in fact views his instrument as a separate entity rather merely a poor cousin of a hybrid—"not enough guitar and not enough bass as he claims some levy as criticism.

With spartan production values—Hunter set up on a barren but dark-hued soundstage with two amps, his array of processing effects and a chair—the performance is refreshingly informal. All too often preconceived environments create a sterile atmosphere, in contrast to the more exciting and unpredictable setting of a live concert performance. But as much testimony to producer/director Daniel Berman as it is Hunter's own refreshingly casual personality—one that belies a more deeply dedicated work ethic—the whole performance has the impromptu feel of sitting in on a practice session rather than impeccably-arranged recording date.

Hunter performs three pieces found on his last trio CD, Friends Seen and Unseen (Ropeadope, 2003), and the Right Now Live! DVD. But while "Stars Fell on Alabama was also as a solo piece on Right Now Live!, this time Hunter delivers solo readings of "Oakland and "Lulu's Crawl, group performances on those earlier releases. Being able to deliver credible solo performances of pieces where the expectation is to hear more is evidence as to just how comfortable he is on the instrument. When he first emerged in the mid-1990s, there was often the rigid feeling that he was sacrificing spontaneity on one end while he improvised on the other. Now he's become so accomplished that there's a completely pianistic independence between the "bass and "guitar halves of his playing—a truly spontaneous and synergistic duplexing of musical ideas in real time.

He's also become a more accomplished soloist from a purely musical perspective, distinct from his instrument of choice. His version of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy moves all over the map, from lightening guitar-like solo runs to various shifts in tempo where his contrapuntal lines suggest far more rhythmically than they could ever explicitly state. He's managing to pull off technical feats that seem almost impossible to comprehend for anyone who plays even a traditional guitar—keeping a rhythmically-moving line on the low end, he's now easily bending not just single notes, but whole chords on top. Sometimes it's really sleight of hand—when he's actually bending those chords he's hit an open string on the bottom—but the whole thing happens so organically that you don't notice unless you pay very specific attention.

Being a capable soloist—someone who has enough invention to sustain interest without any accompaniment—is a challenge for any musician; and Hunter has clearly reached a point in his career where he's got a deep well of ideas from which to draw. Compare both the degree of complexity in his playing—and, paradoxically, its appearance of ease—to his first attempt at a solo release Solo Eight String Guitar (Contra Punto, 2000), and his growth is clear.

In the short interview segments scattered throughout the performance, Hunter emphasizes that the instrument has evolved into something far greater than he'd imagined when he first approached Novak to build the first model. In some ways, the view that some critics take—that it's nothing more than gimmickry—is not far from what Hunter originally had in mind. But as the years have progressed, he's continued to commit himself to not only honing his skill and facility on the instrument, but widening his overall musical horizons. His instrument has now truly evolved into something that's more than just three bass strings and five guitar strings. Hunter has carved a completely unique niche with an instrument that allows him to self-accompany in a way that no other—not even the double-handed tapping instrument, the Chapman Stick—can. And with his careful attention to sound processing, he's broadened the instrument's reach even further—emulating, for example, the sound of an organ and allowing Hunter and a drummer to become a two-person organ trio.

With enough performance material to make it bear repeated viewing, and insightful interview material to provide perspective on what Hunter is trying to accomplish, Solo Inventions is both documentary and performance video. Like Hunter himself, Solo Inventions takes two separate functions and brings them together into something more satisfying than either alone.

Visit Charlie Hunter and Shanachie on the web.

Personnel: Charlie Hunter: eight-string guitar.

Tracks: 11 Bars for Ghandi; 8 String Guitar Jam; My Heart Belongs to Daddy; Stars Fell on Alabama; Oakland; Untitled Ballad; Quality of Life Jam; Lulu's Crawl.

Related Articles:
Interview—Charlie Hunter: Living the Music
Extended review of Friends Seen and Unseen and Right Now Live!
Charlie Hunter Trio: Live at the Magic Bag

Photo Credits:
All images from the DVD release, courtesy of Shanachie and Original Spin Media, Inc.

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