Ever since he first arrived on the national scene in 1993, hybrid guitarist Charlie Hunter has constantly reassessed and reimagined his music. Starting with the eponymous Charlie Hunter Trio release featuring drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Dave Ellis, Hunter has blended his union of bass lines and guitar melodies while using seven, eight and now a six-string guitar.
Back in 2020, Hunter offered a mental rescue to two-time Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who was grounded at home as the pandemic shut down the touring industry. Hunter presented him with instrumental tracks accompanied by DJ Harrison on keyboards and Corey Fonville on drums. Elling then added melodies on top of what the threesome had recorded to create the self-titled debut of SuperBlue, which earned international praise as well as a 2022 Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
The collaboration between Hunter and Elling makes sense when you consider that both have ambitious, creative natures that never allowed their careers to become static.
After a covers EP followed by a live session EP, the musical teaming continues and remains inspired on SuperBlue’s second full-length, The Iridescent Spree. The album
reunites Hunter and Elling with Fonville and Harrison (both of jazz-funk fusion quintet Butcher Brown) for nine tracks that take the music in new, exciting directions – the booty shakin’ funkiness of “Bounce It,” covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” Bob Dorough’s “Naughty Number Nine” from “Schoolhouse Rock,” Ron Sexsmith’s “Right About Now” and a reimagining of Ornette Coleman’s “Only the Lonely Woman” wherein Elling contributes new lyrics and his signature vocals to the 1959 instrumental while the drum rhythm relies on English breakbeat.
Discussing the SuperBlue project, Hunter said “It’s going to go where it’s going to go. Presumably, it’ll change and grow again. I feel like there’s still room to grow with this project.”
I spoke with a jetlagged Hunter who recently arrived home after shows in Australia about SuperBlue, The Iridescent Spree, playing hybrid guitar, bluesman Blind Blake and the need to turn down some opportunities.
JPG: Let’s start with the new album. I watched a video of SuperBlue’s Atlanta show from last May, and Kurt said onstage that while he was isolated due to COVID you sent him instrumentals and told him to add melodies to it. Is that what happened and, if so, what made you think of getting vocals on it rather than just being a set of instrumentals?
CH: That was the whole point all along was that because it was COVID, me, Corey Fonville and DJ Harrison couldn’t really get to where Kurt was, but I was not far from those guys. So, we got together and recorded a bunch of stuff. The intention was to make a record with Kurt. The intention all along was not to be an instrumental project but the intention was for it to be all along a thing with Kurt.
At that time that’s how we did it. A lot of the songs we came up with these forms and grooves and sent them to Kurt to put lyrics on and melodies, and then some of them were already tunes, like the Carla Bley one that’s on that first record. There’s also a Wayne Shorter one and we just did our version of it.
Then, for the next stuff we did some of those things but Kurt was there for the new record, and we’ve done a bunch of a singles off it already, too.
JPG: What made you think of Kurt? I know you worked with him once in 2000.
CH: We’ve known each other forever, and we were signed to Blue Note. It was actually not me thinking of him. It was him and his manager, Brian, thinking of me because we were doing all these little COVID collaborations on Instagram—Kurt and I—and his manager was like, “Why don’t we try to take this into the studio?”
JPG: You and Kurt did the first album plus a covers EP and The London Sessions EP…
CH: Yeah, we did a lot. A couple years ago, we had a run at Ronnie Scott’s with these two great background singers and we decided to go into a studio there and film some and record some. That’s where that [London Sessions] EP came from. Then, we had the EP with me and Nate Smith and Kurt where we basically went into the studio in one day and just did all that stuff. It’s all live except Kurt added some background vocals after the fact.
JPG: Altogether it’s been four releases, what is it about this collaboration that interests and inspires you?
CH: For one thing, Kurt is one of the baddest cats around in terms of vocalists of my generation. I have got to be honest. I just don’t think there’s a lot of people that can touch him. I know that’s hyperbole but when you play with him night after night and he does his thing, you’re like, “Alright, this is a bad motherfucker.” I am more than happy to sit back with a great drummer and just groove behind him and let him do his thing. That to me is probably more gratifying than playing a bunch of silly solos.
JPG: That was cool about the Atlanta show, watching the band members and seeing the smile on your face. Any band when they’re smiling at each other that is always a thrill for the audience to see.
CH: Oh yeah. It’s always a good time.
JPG: I was going through old emails and finding your name mentioned for one recording after another. I have found tons of videos of you on YouTube playing this live show or session or other things. You don’t seem to be someone who’s ever wanting for work. So, I imagine you have to put x-amount of things to the side because you don’t have the time now. What is it about SuperBlue that you’re like, “This is what I’m focused on. I’m gonna have to turn this offer down or this other offer down.”
CH: That’s a great question, actually. You can only be in so many places at one time. There are lots of different things that I get offered. I have time to do, for instance, I’ve been producing and playing on a lot of records. There’s a bunch of stuff that I’ve been releasing of other people’s stuff that I produced or I played on. Nic Clark, I don’t know if you know him, but I did a record with him. I did a record with a friend of mine, DaShawn Hickman and I produced a boleros record for my friend Maritzaida. I don’t know if you’re into boleros but she sings the living shit out of them. I didn’t play on that, but I produced that one. Recently, there’s a record by Candice Ivory. She’s a legit blues singer, the real deal, and we made a great record that I play on and produce.
So, I have time to do a lot of this stuff. Then, of course, Victoria Victoria is a project that I’ve been working on a lot as well. We’re in the studio all the time and I go on the road a little bit when I can.
The recording stuff I can do. I have time for that. It’s the road stuff. The thing with SuperBlue is when you get to play as much as we do and you get to sit in the pocket on this stuff, there’s just something about that. The audience gets into it, and when you’re backing up a singer that’s on the level that Kurt is night after night. That just never gets tired. Every night you’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna be on my shit tonight.”
JPG: The bolero albums I saw on your website. That and the other albums listed, are those on your label?
CH: Yeah. We have a little label that my wife runs. She does a really great job with it. It’s called Side Hustle. We put a lot of stuff out on that. And, I have other little projects here and there but in terms of anything large, at the moment, I just don’t have a ton of time.
JPG: As far as your past albums, you did a 20th anniversary remaster of Right Now Move on vinyl. My introduction to you encompasses around a dozen albums including your 1993 trio album with Jay Lane on drums and Dave Ellis on saxophone, who I really liked a lot when I heard him.
CH: Oh yeah. Dave’s incredible.
JPG: I forgot Jay Lane was part of the Trio until I was doing research for this interview.
CH: Jay’s my guy. We go way back. I mean, waaaaay back.
JPG: Did you play with him first or did Les play with him first?
CH: I’ve known Jay since I was 14, so I don’t know. [Laughs.]
JPG: So, out of all your past releases, why Right Now Move? Why not a deluxe version or remaster of the Charlie Hunter Trio self-titled release or something else?
CH: The trio one, Les Claypool was super magnanimous and gave me back the rights to it [the Trio’s debut came out on Claypool’s Prawn Song label], but I didn’t really know how to put it out. This was three years ago, and I gave it to Round Hill Music to put out. So, they’re doing that one.
Right Now Move, it took me a long time to get the masters back for that, and it’s the most requested one for me to put on vinyl of all the records that I had. When we got the masters back, I had forgotten that it was totally analog. So, my man Dave McNair remastered from the original analog tape. So, it’s analog to analog. The LP, it’s vinyl, it’s the old shit, and his remasters are really great. So, we got the vinyl and that’s why we re-released that.