Charlie Hunter, a guitarist whose self-named jazz trio has become an unexpected favorite of the nose-rings-and-tattoos crowd, doesn't like being painted into a corner. When asked about attempts by some jazz purists to define what is and what isn't jazz, he replies, "That's totally limiting. It's limiting for us, and it's limiting for people who are deemed to be in the jazz tradition, too. Because, after all, what is the jazz tradition?"
That's a good question to ask for someone like the San Francisco-based Hunter. You see, his first two albums--1993's fine Charlie Hunter Trio and the new, even better Bing, Bing, Bing!--are not musically revolutionary in and of themselves; while their rhythms sometimes drift toward rock and funk beats, the numbers themselves are chock-full of jazz virtues: compact instrumentation, strong, melodic themes and plenty of improvisational elbow room (or, as it's spelled in the title of Bing's last cut, "Elbo Room"). But by the same token, the approach of Hunter, 28, and his young associates--tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis and drummer Jay Lane--is decidedly grunge-friendly. For example, they eagerly tackle the Kurt Cobain composition "Come As You Are," turning this tribute to disaffectedness into a swinging bopper that will have you and your grandparents snapping your fingers side by side.
"I think it's just a nice tune," Hunter says about the Cobain cover. "Really, when you get past the fact that the guy killed himself recently, it sounds really good. It's got great form to it and a great melody--and all of the standard tunes of the past that the old guys played had those same qualities. And not all of the tunes were all that terrific in the first place. Look at Coltrane doing `My Favorite Things.' Who in the world would have thought about doing that? But he did a ten-minute version of it that's one of the classics. Now, I'm not saying that `Come As You Are' measures up to `My Favorite Things'--not even remotely. But there's no law saying you can't do any tune you want."
Simply because of their backgrounds, the members of the trio have heard plenty of ditties that aren't part of the jazz canon. While Ellis had a solid jazz upbringing (he graduated from the Berklee College of Music), Lane, by contrast, played with Les Claypool's finest creation, Primus, while Hunter hooked up with hip-hop visionary Michael Franti during the period when Franti was working with an act called the Beatnigs. Later, Hunter joined Franti's brilliant Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy when the band was chosen by U2 to open select dates on the Achtung, Baby tour.
Hunter doesn't try to fool anyone into thinking that Primus and the Heroes were secret repositories of jazz. "Not at all," he acknowledges. "I mean, there's no jazz in Primus, definitely. Zero. Les is doing what he's doing, creating his own universe, but it really doesn't have anything to do with jazz music at all. And the Heroes had nothing to do with music at all, for the most part. They were about the message, not the music.
"But I do hear jazz in groups like A Tribe Called Quest," he adds. "Not necessarily because they have jazz samples--because who cares?--but because they're artists in what they do. They get into a flow like an improviser, and when I hear them doing their thing, I get a similar feeling in my gut when I hear a really amazing Cannonball Adderley solo. It's not the same thing, but it goes to the same soul-sensory place."
Primus's Claypool recognized that Hunter, likewise, had the ability to appeal to rockers, even though he clearly wasn't one. Hence, The Charlie Hunter Trio was released on Claypool's Prawn Song imprint and distributed by Mammoth, a company associated almost entirely with discs on the alternative side of the fence. In short order, tracks such as "Funky Nights" and "Dance of the Jazz Fascists" caught the ears of post-punkers who'd never heard anything like it, as well as those of open-minded jazz lovers. In the latter camp were representatives of Blue Note, a revered jazz label that's lately broadened its horizons with signees such as Us3. "It is shocking on some level to be on Blue Note," Hunter concedes, "because they've put out some of the greatest records in history, and nowadays they put out a lot of the guys-in-suits things. But a lot of those guys are incredible players, whether you like their shtick or not. You have to give it to them."
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Following the appearance of Bing, Hunter, too, has come in for praise from both the rock and jazz press. Hunter insists that he doesn't take this acclaim all that seriously: "I think I haven't had too much criticism because people feel sorry for me. They're not going to come up to me and say, `Your record sucks! Especially that Nirvana tune! That's bullshit!' Actually, it might be nice if they did." Still, the few barbs that have been directed at the trio and T.J. Kirk, an eccentric Hunter side project represented by a newly released Warner Bros. platter, don't seem to bother the guitarist in the slightest.
"When Charlie Parker was playing, Cab Calloway said it was the worst stuff he'd ever heard in his life," Hunter notes. "And when Ornette Coleman came out, Roy Eldridge said, `He's faking it. I can't hear a goddamn thing he's playing. It's awful.' So at the end of the day, everyone has their own opinion, and it really doesn't matter. That's why I'm just going to play what feels right to me."
Charlie Hunter Trio, with CornBread. 9 p.m. Saturday, August 26, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $8, 322-2308.