Charlie Hunter’s Next Step: Giving the Drummer Some

For all the musicians out there who toil over a piano keyboard for hours at a time, try to achieve four limb independence on a trap kit, or even coax a smooth note out of a trumpet, just imagine being a guitarist who wants to hear just a little more bass. So you have a friend put a seventh string on your guitar, and now you’ve got two bass strings and five guitar strings. Things are more interesting. After playing it for a few years, starting to incorporate bass lines into your playing, you decide you want to hear a little more bass. You ask the same friend that made you a seven string out of an old six string to build you a custom eight string. Now you’ve got two things going on: an eight string guitar (three bass strings, five treble strings) and the potential to play both bass and guitar parts at the same time. No, not a few bass notes, then a chord, then a few notes, I’m talking about sounding like two people. Playing bass parts while comping or soloing is something the piano players of the world can understand readily, but in the guitar world, this is new ground, and the man breaking it is Charlie Hunter.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Hunter started his professional career warming up for U2 and Primus with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. However, the pop music life didn’t prove fulfilling to Charlie, so he decided to develop his style within the world of jazz. Hunter formed a trio with high school friend and tenor sax player Dave Ellis and original Primus drummer Jay Lane. The trio gigged regularly to increasingly packed houses at the Elbo Room and the Up and Down Club in San Francisco and released an album on Les Claypool’s Prawn Song label before catching the attention of Blue Note in the early ‘90’s. The Charlie Hunter Trio signed with Blue Note and released Bing, Bing, Bing! in 1995, and over the next year the trio slowly evolved into a quartet. With drummer Scott Amendola driving the group, Hunter’s good friend Calder Spanier was added on alto sax, and after recording Ready, Set... Shango! in 1996, tenor player Kenny Brooks was added to replace Trio tenorist Dave Ellis.

Intermingling with Hunter’s evolving ensemble was the influence of T.J. Kirk, a side project with drummer Amendola and Bay Area guitarists John Schott and Will Bernard. T.J. Kirk played the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rashaan Roland Kirk, and released two albums on Warner Bros. The group would play the tunes of Brown, Monk, and Kirk, but often with the rhythmic undertones of James Brown’s infamous funk. Standards like Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” were given a whole new meaning with the head stated by a three part guitar harmony and a backbeat.

By 1998, Hunter knew it was again time for change. Not just personnel change, but a change in sound. “I not only wanted to play in a more percussive setting this time out, but I also wanted to dig into new realms of tonality and timbre. Don’t get me wrong, I love the horns, but I’d been doing that for so long that I wanted to go after something different.” Charlie recruited vibes player Stefon Harris to be his partner in harmony and melody, and percussionist John Santos to fill out the rhythm section with long time collaborator Amendola. The new line-up began to gig in the Bay Area under the name Pound for Pound before going into the studio to record Return of the Candyman for Blue Note. The album shows Hunter’s interest in hip-hop paired with his love of jazz. By adding a percussionist to the already solid foundation he had with Amendola, Hunter built a rhythm section that could groove in a way none of his other ensembles had before, while the smooth melodic tone and cascading waves of Harris’ vibraphone makes the sound of Return both funky and sophisticated. Of the fusion on the album Hunter says, “I didn’t want it to just be a jazz record. I wanted it to be people with jazz sensibilities trying to make an organic hip hop record.”

Recently, Charlie Hunter’s evolution has taken yet another step with a new recording coming out on Blue Note, a collaboration with drummer Leon Parker. I was able to talk to Hunter from his new home in Brooklyn, where he recently moved to from the Bay Area, and ask him a few questions about his newest project and the truth about playing an eight string guitar.

What’s the idea behind the new disc and the collaboration with Leon Parker?

“You know me man, I’m just always trying to try something different out, and Leon is just incredible. He’s just one of my favorite musicians out there, so it was just great for me to be able to make a disc with him. It’s something I’m real proud of having done.”

You’ve played with two, three, four and now only one other person. How do you feel the duo fits in with the evolution of your concept?

“I feel like that’s what it’s all about; it’s all about evolving. I feel like I made those trio records like six, seven years ago, and that was so long ago in my evolution. Y’know, I can’t imagine playing that kind of stuff. I think we, as musicians... are on a path, and some of us are more dedicated to traveling farther on that path. So, I feel like I’m just dedicated to really getting my instrument together, and I feel that through the records I’ve made I’ve kind of evolved not just the instrument, but the writing and the way it’s approached. I feel like if I had tried to make a duo record a couple of years ago, I would not have been ready for it, and I was ready for it now. Both stylistically and my evolution of learning how to play, I felt I was ready for it. But if I were to make a solo record today... I don’t think I’m ready to do that. And I don’t think I’ll be ready to do that for a couple more years. I just don’t think I’m good enough yet. I mean, I could make a solo record, and it would be a bunch of stupid, flashy guitar stuff, but it wouldn’t be a relevant piece of music that I would want people to listen to.”

So you don’t feel that you’ve felt out how far you can go and how far the instrument will take you over time?

“No, I don’t think I have. I think for now, I‘ve maxxed out a lot of the left hand possibilities, as far as conception of the harmony and the melodies that I want to hear together. I haven’t maxxed it out, but I’ve gone as far as I can with what technique I have at the moment. But I think I have a long way to go as far as the right hand is concerned, which is the rhythmic execution. I think I can get a lot... stronger counterpoint together, and I think I can represent each part more articulately and strongly. It’s just a matter of thinking about it and practicing.”

How much time do you actually spend practicing?

“You know, it’s funny, because I’m thinking about music all the time. It’s always in my mind. Probably, I end up practicing, with my schedule, maybe two to three hours a day. Sometimes maybe only one hour. But, I’m always thinking about music and I’m always training my ear, and I’ve taken drums up again. Just as a hobby, you know what I mean? Because, I think it’s such an important thing... I think it makes you a better player to learn another instrument. Especially drums, because that’s what this music is really all about... the rhythmic element.”

So with the guitar, you feel as though you can evolve more with the right hand and you feel pretty good with the left hand...

“Well, I’m not feeling pretty good, I’m just feeling like I need to evolve the right hand a lot more before the left hand’s going to go anywhere. I feel like the direction I need to go in right now is... all about trying to simplify this stuff that’s happening in the left hand and concentrate on what’s happening in the right hand. Because, you know, I could play some long, impressive, jazz wank-off line, and if I’m not really executing it one hundred percent it’s going to come across sounding not all that great. People aren’t going to really care. But, if I play a small, very simple passage between the bass and guitar parts and I execute it very well, then that means something. So, I gotta just try to learn how to do that better.”

How has living in New York been going for you?

“Oh man, it’s just incredible. You know what they say, it’s ten pounds of you-know-what in a five pound sack, but it’s great because this is where all of the great muses, musicians, and artists are, you know? It’s just an inspiration to be here.”

Do you have any ideas for what you are going to do next?

“Well, the next record I’m going to do is not my record, it’s Mike Clark’s record. Do you know Mike?”

He was the drummer with the Headhunters, right?

“Right. Well, Mike is the man, and it looks like he and I and Kenny Garrett, and hopefully Dave Douglas are going to make this record. Mike has completely managed to blend the two styles of playing, you know, that funk shit he invented, and the jazz shit. He’s managed to blend those two together and it’s really kickin’ man. At fifty-two years of age, after making such a statement, to come out and start to make another one is pretty impressive. (At this point, Hunter slyly changes the topic) Have you seen Leon play before?”

No, I haven’t.

“You’ve got to get the record Belief man, it’ll blow your fucking mind. He’s unbelievable man, my playing went up another level just from playing with him. He’s outrageous, man... I think, like three years ago I just was not ready to play with Leon Parker. I wasn’t good enough. And I barely feel like I’m good enough now. But, I’m young enough...that I can convince myself I am.”

Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker: Duo comes out on Blue Note on March 23rd. Charlie will be touring the U.S. with drummer Adam Cruz and getting back together with Leon Parker to tour Europe in this summer. If you’re interested in the next step of a rising star of new jazz with a unique style and a one of a kind instrument, pick up the disc or see a show and hear how humble the man really is.

J. Matthew Bushlow interviewed and wrote about William Parker and David Budbill for issue #11.