By Jason West
By Rob Evanoff
Like any highly skilled marksman or sharpshooter, a trusty weapon is an essential accessory in traipsing the terrain as a hunter. And when you are a highly skilled hunter by namesake as well, you hunt for new grooves with an instrument that’s an extension of your creative energy, which in Charlie Hunter’s case is an eight string guitar, a unique weapon indeed, as a resting bed for three bass strings and five guitar strings.
Hunter, now 32, grew up in Berkeley CA and has been playing guitar for 20 years, purchasing his first six-string for a paltry $7 and soon finding himself taking lessons from just another Berkeley guitar teacher, a Mr. Joe Satriani. Charlie practiced and practiced and continued exploring those same old half dozen strings until the late 80s when his destined path on the way to the great eight took a step forward as he began playing a seven-string guitar, which had two bass strings, five guitar strings and two pickups. From there, it wasn’t long until he was invited to join the Bay-area alternative rap duo Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (DHH), which he did in 1993, and found himself on tour opening up for U2 and Primus. After a year with DHH, he wanted to start his own thing and since then has constantly sought the right combination of players for the vibe he is hunting for.
The Charlie Hunter Trio and their self-titled debut hit in 1994, which got the attention of Blue Note Records (who signed him) and he recorded another trio record entitled Bing Bing Bing! (1995), a guitar, tenor saxophone, drum trio. Three was company but Charlie wanted four on the floor, so the Charlie Hunter Trio became a quartet as he added an alto saxophone for two recordings, Ready...Set...Shango! (1996) and Natty Dread (1997), which was a re-envisioning of Bob Marley’s classic recording.
In 1998, Hunter switched things up again with Return of the Candyman by retiring the horn section and enlisting vibes player Stefon Harris and percussionist John Santos and renaming the quartet Pound For Pound. This release and subsequent tour earned him his jamband ‘badge of recognition’ as Pound For Pound hit the road with Galatic for a cluster of dates that often resulted in charged up performances eliciting raving enthusiastic response. From there, Charlie scaled back to the basics in 1999 by teaming up with the brilliant drummer Leon Parker on the magnificent opus Duo which set the stage for his latest endeavor that hit in June 2000. With the release of Charlie Hunter, this versatile producer and musician revisits each of his plateaus, but with a hip, cool wide-open wave of jazz and blues mixed with a soulful mood. Some tracks feature Charlie solo, several with Leon Parker as a duo, a few with the addition of a horn section and a couple as a sextet to allow for a bit more percussive depth.
What more could they want, fans seemingly had it all pound for pound; they had the quartet, and trio and duo recordings but what if they just couldn’t get enough of their eight-string man. Well, the hunting for Hunter is finally over as a limited opportunity to have Charlie all to themselves has presented itself. On May 15 & 16th, Hunter went back to Avatar Studios, where he recorded Charlie Hunter this past January, and knocked out a solo eight-string guitar record titled, funny enough, Solo Eight String Guitar . The CD features a dozen tracks including covers of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” T. Monk’s “Green Chimneys” as well as a rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding” and Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Soweto”. Hunter thickens the cohesive stew with the inclusion of four original interludes that only an eight-string guitar can do. You would think he has four hands! Fans of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green will be delighted by this solo effort but you better hurry, since only 2000 copies of the CD were pressed. It was released in August, on his very own Contra Punto Records, and is available only at his shows or www.charliehunter.com.
Hunter continues to be one of Blue Note’s most popular artists, but has also found time to contribute to other albums, most notably pop star D’Angelo’s recent Voodoo release which features Hunter on three tracks, two of which he shares co-writing credit and singer and label mate Patricia Barber’s Nightclub . In the past, he has shown off his multi-faceted wares having also collaborated with Zap Mama, Dave Ellis, Tevin Campbell, Les Claypool and William S. Burroughs.
Charlie not only remains creatively efficient, releasing at least one album per year since 1994, but also is a confirmed and tenured road dog. He spent the summer touring in support of Charlie Hunter, covering all points in between including the gregarious Vynyl in Los Angeles, CA which partnered a sensational performance in a great sounding room with a reactive audience. Accompanying Hunter were Chris Lovejoy (congas, percussion) and Stephen Chopek (drums, percussion). Stephen and Chris were set up facing one another with Charlie on the inset in the middle, which sort became like a Bermuda triangle, for once your focus slipped inside this mythical musical field, you were lost in a sea of percussive and rhythmic abandon until the sensory ship came back to shore. Material from Charlie Hunter dominated the set with spirited energy abound in songs such as “Flau Flau,” “Dersu,” “Nothin’ But Trouble,” and “Rendezvous Avec La Verite”. Other highlights were a sublime take on “Mean Streak” from Duo and an intense percussive explosion appropriately referred to as “Stephen’s Bad Ass Groove”. The trio in this incarnation just finished up another series of dates the last week of October, but will navigate the road throughout the Southeast from November 10-19th as the middle act on the loosely named Blue Note Neon Groove Tour featuring label brethren Jazz Mandolin Project and Soulive. And then to usher in the REAL millennium, the Charlie Hunter Trio will play a week’s worth of shows at the world famous Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA from Dec 26th to Dec 31st.
Like any emerging breed, Hunter has been trapped, but not skinned by the critics. Their intent is not to stuff him but, for now, to position him on the mantel with a nod to the idea that one day he may deserve placement on the hallowed wall of nature’s finest. Recently, Downbeat Magazine cited Charlie as the “# 1 guitarist deserving wider recognition” with High Times Magazine giving him the nod as Best Jazz Artist and Best Jazz Record for 2000. These acknowledgements are definitely echoed long and loud by his growing legion of Hunter heads, which will continue to gather round the fireplace to stare at their prized trophy.