Charlie Hunter is without a doubt one of the most talented and complex young jazz guitarists playing today. The very nature of jazz tends to steer clear of absolutes, but no one musician playing today uses the same techniques to convey such diverse forms of musical expression. Those who have never seen Hunter perform live might listen to his CDs and think that one guitarist in playing lead, one is playing bass, and yet another musician is playing some parts on an organ. In reality, Hunter can make his 8 string guitar and pedal effects produce sounds of all three. His multi-dimensional style has also fueled his never ending quest to experiment with different genres, leaving few rocks unturned. A native of northern California, Hunter relocated to the East Coast to give himself more opportunity to play with other jazz musicians.
Hunter has always been blessed with a multitude of talented musicians on all of his projects. He has collaborated with brass players in his initial trio and quartet and then moved on to more percussion oriented combos on subsequent projects. While living in the San Francisco Bay area, he teamed with Jay Lane and Dave Ellis to form the original trio. Both would go on to play in Bob Weir’s Ratdog. One of his later albums would give a jazzy, instrumental interpretation to the Bob Marley epic, “Natty Dread.” Hunter still has hints of influence from Thelonious Monk in his roving, abstract guitar solos. He was one of several guitarists to play as T.J. Kirk, an outfit that explored the music of Rashaan Roland Kirk in addition to Monk. Always thirsty for new partners, Hunter contributed to Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s solo album “All Kooked Out,” which also included New Orleans saxophonist Skerik. This album in particular has received quite a bit of critical acclaim.
Near the end of 1997 Hunter grew weary of the stagnant jazz scene on the West Coast and moved to Brooklyn. Living in New York City has provided him with additional inspiration to tackle new material and an unlimited number of established jazz players to share ideas. His most recent projects have been duos. His newest album is a collaboration with Leon Parker, a minimalist drummer renowned throughout the New York jazz community. Hunter’s friendship with Parker also led to a U.S. tour with Adam Cruz, an Caribbean-style percussionist. This tour was so successful that it spawned a series of Sunday evening performances at Joe’s Pub in New York during the month of August. These gigs also feature special guests on each night. Hunter’s focus on the duos projects has given him plenty of room to improvise while simultaneously establishing a strong rapport with whichever drummer he plays with on a given night. Additional information about his Sunday shows can be found at JamBase.com. In real life Charlie is a soft-spoken guy who is modest about his accomplishments. I had the opportunity to talk with about his past, present, and future plans. Excerpts of that interview follow.
C: Back when you were growing up in California you studied guitar with Joe Satriani. Did that influence you a lot when you were younger?
H: Well, I lived in Berkley, California and he was just the local guitar teacher. He wasn’t a star or anything. I just learned the basics off of him; how to get around on the fingerboard, basically. It did have an influence on me because he taught me a lot of the building blocks. He and another teacher of mine, Warren, taught me all of the building blocks and how to physically play the instrument. Musically speaking I don’t think he’s had that big of an influence, but he was a great teacher back when I was younger, 14 or 15.
C: What kind of effect are you using to make your guitar sound like a Hammond organ?
H: On some of the records I’m using a Leslie speaker, but when I play live I use this thing called a Ketner roto-sphere which is a really good box. It’s something that’s a twentieth of the size of a Leslie speaker.
C: The album you just released with Leon Parker, the “Duos” album, is kind of a minimalist approach to the music you play. Did you feel that the freedom to experiment was the challenge you were looking for?
H: Oh definitely. It was definitely a challenging thing. Some people call it minimalism or the less-is-more concept or doing a lot with a few people. I’m enjoying that particular setup right now: the drums with the eight-string guitar duo. It’s kind of fun musically and for the communication we get between two people. It’s a lot more immediate and direct than between three people.
C: I know you recorded the album live and there’s only one overdub on it. Did you expect it to go off that well in advance? Did you just say, “let’s make this album and go to lunch”?
H: I knew it was going to be good because Leon is such a great musician. I just knew that we would hit it and hopefully it would just run pretty well. It did. We just set up and played a bunch. It just took a couple of days to record it.
C: I read that once you said this was your first album as a musical adult. How much has your move to New York City at the end of ’97 influenced that?
H: Oh, enormously. It did everything. It made a man out of me. That’s where all the best players are. In the bay area, there’s a lot of great musicians to come of there, but to get to that upper level of your playing I just think you gotta come here. I felt that has held true for me because I feel like I’m much more inspired and a better player because of it.
C: You’ve definitely explored lots of different music with all the different projects you’re had with your trio, quintet, and Pound for Pound. What is it deep inside of you that makes you keep trying different things?
H: That’s the thing. I’m always trying to do what I think of as more or less improvised rhythm music coming from kind of the jazz background, improvising over either rhythmic forms or harmonic forms. I just feel like there’s so much room to really try to express yourself and grow as your own artist, you know? That’s what I’m really trying to do, to just evolve myself and go with what I feel is natural.
C: Is the satisfaction that you feel with the Duos album going to affect the way you pick your projects in the future?
H: Oh, definitely. I’m doing another duo record with Adam Cruz. That’s gonna be the next record. We’re gonna have a good time. We’ve got a lot of material and we’ve had a lot of rehearsals because we’ve played together every night for the last six months.
C: I’ve also heard that you’re thinking about putting together an album that had some vocals with some different people on it. Are you still thinking about doing that as well?
H: Yeah, I think that will be the one after the next duo record.
C: You did start your summer tour off with Adam Cruz on percussion. How did the two of you get involved musically?
H: He was an old roommate of Leon’s. You know, Leon and I had made that record and I was really worried I wasn’t going to be able to find anyone that would be able to do the kinds of stuff that needed to be done for that situation. Adam did it perfectly. Leon said I know one guy who could do it. Adam and I hit it off and we’ve been doing it ever since.
C: I know you had to change gears starting off with Adam and then going to Europe to tour with Leon and then coming back. Did that change the way you approached the music when you were playing it?
H: Definitely, especially in the duos situation you really develop a kind of relationship and get to know what the person’s thinking and how there going to play and what they’re going to do here and there. When you play with someone for a long time and then switch gears, it can be a pretty abrupt shift.
C: You had your first gig at Joe’s bar last Sunday. You have a four-night stand throughout the month of August. How did that go?
H: Oh, great. It was a lot of fun. A lot of people came down and a friend of mine, a tap-dancer, came and sat in with us.
C: A tap dancer?
H: Yeah, his name is Tamango. He’s a New York City guy up here.
C: Do you have any long-term goals for the future?
H: I’ve had the same goal for a while, just to keep bettering myself as a musician and a person, to try to evolve, that’s all.
C: Are you listening to any other kinds of music right now?
H: I’ve been listening to a lot of Joseph Fenton, an old guitar player from the Bahamas. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music. Kaitono Veloso has a new record out. I listen to a lot of Cuban rumba.
C: Where do you see the modern jazz and groove scene headed in the next five years? Do you have a vision for it?
H: I really don’t know about other people. I just try to do my thing, you know. Hopefully I’m just going to get better and play more quality music.