Charlie Hunter: Two-Fisted Guitar Hero

Charlie Hunter has been working the jazz scene, or at least its fringes, for a few years now. He's one of the few young guitarists who has established a solid reputation and a growing discography reminiscent of the 40-something generation of guitar heroes like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

But there are catches: Hunter will be the first to tell you that he's hardly a traditional, down-the-middle jazz player, preferring a personal brew of soul grooves that has earned him a following across stylistic party lines; also, he's not a typical "guitarist" in the sense that he handles both bass and guitar chores under one mental/physical roof, playing his customized 8-string guitar.

On his fifth and latest Blue Note album, Charlie Hunter, he stretches out with left-field drummer Leon Parker. The ambi-dexterous 33-year-old guitarist, who moved his home base in the Bay Area to Brooklyn three years back, continues to evolve, with the blessing and support of a faithful following. This new album is your first and only eponymously-titled album.

Charlie Hunter: That's just because I couldn't think of a name and I hadn't used that yet. I hadn't used that lifeline. Did you have any particular concept going into this project?

Hunter: It's like the Duo record I did with Leon (Parker) [in 1999]. It's the same kind of concept with Leon and I in the forefront, but with other people adding colors to it. I met Leon a couple of years ago in Brooklyn just walking around. But I had been a fan for a long time. We just started playing together, and it's been great from the beginning. He comes from that jazz world, but he's ready to go off in a lot of different directions. I think that was a good connection, musically. You have Peter Apfelbaum, another émigré to New York from the Bay Area, on this album, too. He is also someone for whom jazz is a strong avenue, but he seems happy to veer off in many other multiple directions?

Hunter: Sure. There's just so much music out there, there's no need to tie yourself down with one form of expression. When you play jazz, it's great to learn all the harmonies and rhythmic patterns involved in that, but there's also a certain dogma attached. I think, once you learn what you want to know and get past the dogma associated with it, then it can be great. You can't listen to a lot of other stuff with those open ears. Was jazz an obvious impetus for you as a younger musician getting into the guitar, or did that come later?

Hunter: It came later. I'm a guitar player. We don't start playing jazz stuff. We want to start playing because we want to play the Hendrix licks, or the Beatles songs, or the Albert King thing. Then, we exhaust those possibilities, and decide, "Well, where do I go from here?" It's just nice to keep traveling. What led you to the eight-string guitar?

Hunter: Well, I played six-string and listened to a lot of Joe Pass and Tuck Andress stuff, and a lot of organ players, with the left-hand bass and pedal bass. I also played a lot of bass. I just felt like I needed to get a little more low end out of the instrument. I started playing a seven-string, with a low A string on it. Then, I figured, "What the hell am I doing? Am I going to do it or not?" So I had Ralph Novak make me this instrument, with the range of a bass and a guitar on it. I've been developing it ever since. Did you know, when you started using it, that it would be your musical life?

Hunter: Not really. I've played it for about eight years now. Looking back on it, it's like, "What the hell was I thinking? It's crazy." I was playing gigs and stuff and I just had to learn how to play the eight-string quickly so I could play it on gigs. I just learned on the job. Guitar players have a hard time switching to keyboards, where they're required to think about more than one hand at a time, maybe. That's not the case for you?

Hunter: Playing the eight-string is a lot harder than playing the keyboard. There's a lot more technical stuff involved, unfortunately, but that's just where I'm at. That' my bed. I made it. I gottasleep in it. Is it to the point now where it's hard for you to play a conventional six string guitar?

Hunter: I can, but it's like a Cuban trying to speak Portuguese. It's very close, but it's a completely different sensibility, The languages are very close, and yet I just don't have anything to say on that instrument. I don't have any vocabulary on it anymore. My vocabulary on the guitar is that of a 20-year old. I'd play blues licks. I wouldn't know what the hell to do. Are the right hand notes tapped on your eight-string?

Hunter: No. That's what's hard about it. The right hand technique is very unique to this instrument. The thumb plays the bass on the right hand and the fingers play the guitar, just like in guitar finger-picking. You have to be a lot more acute. It takes a lot more accuracy. You have to be super accurate, and with the fingers at the same time, and the left hand mixes and matches all of the various combinations. Who do you think your audience is? It's not the typical jazz crowd.

Hunter: No, not at all, and I'm proud of that. I think that there are some of the jazz people in the audience, but not totally. It's not like the fair weather fans who go to a jazz club to be in the atmosphere. It's really just music people. They come from all different walks of life and age groups. Your influence is creeping into the music scene, but partly, the difficulty of your instrumental technique makes your sound hard to approach for most players.

Hunter: I'm not trying to say, "Oh, I'm so great," but it is kind of inaccessible. It's not like you can go, "Oh, that's great. I'm going to go get the instrument and do that." Whereas, when you were a kid and you heard Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was still a 6-string guitar and they were still playing with a pick. No matter how awesome they were -- and still are, in my mind, because I can still listen to that stuff and be completely floored -- there was still some kind of a possibility of you actually being able to do that. Whereas this comes out of having already done that and needing to do something else. It also comes out of having some knowledge of a drum set and percussion and how rhythms work together, contrapuntally. There are so many things in it. Although the music I'm playing is very accessible, I don't think the instrument or the technique is very accessible. You don't just pick it up, strum a chord, and get happy, it takes a little more than that. Do you feel a sense of satisfaction being just outside the jazz world, per se?

Hunter: Yeah. Early on, I realized I was not going to be accepted in that universe, having no anger or spite on that account. But that's okay, because I've basically lived my life not being accepted by any particular group. I don't say that with any anger or unhappiness. It's just that we get the cards that we're dealt. You get lemons and you make lemonade.

I have to look at things in a positive way. I feel that it's great that I didn't get accepted into that world, because that really forced me to not follow the party line and to have to create something that is my own, and is more personal. Therefore, it's probably more pertinent and memorable, and also easier for me to play, because it's about who I am, as opposed to who a bunch of other people are.

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