I think of myself as a very small link in a very big chain."
Jazz may get a bad rap as something complicated, esoteric, maybe even a bit snooty, but you wouldn't know it talking to Charlie Hunter. Speaking early in the morning from his home in Brooklyn, he sounds like a pretty balanced, relaxed, down-to-earth kind of guy. Aside from a couple yawns and slurps of coffee, he's way more polite and attentive -- not to mention humble -- than you might imagine such a renowned jazz musician to be. In fact, the virtuoso guitarist considers himself to be someone who still has a lot to learn about the music he champions.
"If I just played guitar or just played bass," he remarks with a laugh, referring to the custom eight-string guitar that's almost become his trademark, "I'd probably be an awful nuisance. I'd be a jackoff playing all that fast guitar and getting-in-the-way bass. But luckily, my instrument is a handicap. There's only so much you can do on it before you reach critical mass. So it kind of keeps me in check."
Not that you can hear even a shred of wankery or excess on his records. His new and bazillionth disc, Friends Seen and Unseen, is a tasteful yet technically dazzling tour de funk, a deeply swung set that showcases Hunter's understated genius. Backed by drummer Derrek Phillips and saxophonist John Ellis (who have played with A-listers like Jason Marsalis and Joshua Redman), Hunter plucks sinuous bass grooves and lyrical guitar lines simultaneously -- not unlike the way jazz organ-masters like Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff would pump low-end notes on the pedals while pounding out thick blocks of chords up top.
It's probably no coincidence, then, that the Trio's style echoes the gritty soul-jazz popularized by Smith, McDuff and scores of others throughout the '60s. But Hunter's music reaches forward, even as it remains rooted in tradition. Besides paying sonic and spiritual homage to bebop, Herbie Hancock and James Brown, it incorporates the progressive, exploratory zeal of free jazz, Bill Frisell and even Prince.
Hunter may be, as he admits, just a link in the chain, but he's not denying how strong -- and captivating -- a chain that is.
"Jazz really hits me," Hunter attests. "It's got that balance of the intellectual and the visceral. When I was a teenager, I felt I had reached the point where I had digested all the rock and blues and R&B guitar playing that I could, so I went to the Berkeley Public Library and checked out all these old Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane records.
"Then I started transcribing them, even though I couldn't really write or read music," he goes on. "I just started learning from those records. I really wanted to get more of a foundation."
Hunter grew up in Berkeley, and the Bay Area's rich musical environment wound up being the ideal stepping stone for the young musician during the late '80s. After being exposed to everything from the Dead Kennedys to P-Funk and taking lessons from his friendly neighborhood guitar giant, Joe Satriani, he joined Michael Franti's lauded Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
But after opening for U2 on a worldwide tour, Hunter became disillusioned with the plasticity of the major-label universe and quit Disposable Heroes to form his own back-to-basics, jazz-oriented combo. Rounded out by ex-schoolmate Dave Ellis on sax and founding Primus member Jay Lane on drums, the Charlie Hunter Trio unleashed its eponymous debut in 1994 on Les Claypool's Prawn Song imprint. Successful club residencies, touring and word of mouth led the three to sign with preeminent jazz label Blue Note. Since then, Hunter has relocated to New York while building a thriving, grassroots fan base across the country -- not to mention releasing a steady stream of albums, including Latitude, the brand-new debut by his current side project, Groundtruther, and a live DVD titled Right Now Live that documents an impromptu warehouse gig in Philadelphia late last year.
As effortless as Hunter's success might seem, however, he's quick to point out the backbreaking agony and buckets of sweat it takes to be a self-supporting jazz musician in an overwhelmingly pop culture.
"It's a lot of work," Hunter maintains. "I've busted my butt for a long time, and I'm still busting my butt. When you have less, and you have to work and work and work, you kind of appreciate what you have a little more. So when I found music, I really applied myself to it. It's an uphill struggle all the time. But I'm doing it on my own terms, which is the most important thing."
Besides cultivating a diverse and dedicated audience through his unpretentious, immediately absorbable performances, Hunter opens a straight line to his fans by allowing them to tape his concerts and by making most of his albums available for download from his website.
"I think downloading is a good thing for guys like me," he explains. "I'm only going to sell a certain amount of records, regardless of what I do. By letting people download and record at my shows, I'm doing everything I can to let people have this community where they can pass the music around. It brings more people to the live shows, which is where I actually do make my living. I see how someone who's making millions and millions of dollars could be upset about stuff like that. But if you're making that much money, you really don't have anything to be upset about. In my opinion, no one should be making millions and millions of dollars anyway. That's what puts the world out of balance."
And maintaining equilibrium, as Hunter will tell you himself, is the pulse at the core of his music.
"I always try to get that balance between the visceral and the intellectual," Hunter concludes. "I just want to let that come out in a natural way, encompassing both of those sides and not letting one dominate. It's really just dealing with your own humanity."
And for Charlie Hunter, keeping it human is what it's all about.
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