Charlie Hunter: In the Pocket, Out of Pocket

After major labels and jam-band hype, groove-crazy guitarist Charlie Hunter has the steady gaze of a survivor

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Charlie Hunter and Doug Wamble
By Enid Farber

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The guitarist, composer and bandleader Charlie Hunter looks worried. It’s around six o’clock on the last evening of January, and he and the drummer Eric Kalb are setting up equipment onstage at Baltimore’s 8X10 club; a cozy, good-sounding room that seems tailor-made for Hunter’s smart yet groove-obsessed music. The venue is probably best known as a clubhouse for the regional jam-band scene, but it also hosts instrumental music that is much harder for jazz diehards to condescend: Joshua Redman and John Scofield’s Piety Street Band have appeared here, and Hunter’s former saxophonist John Ellis held a CD-release show here for his Double-Wide group in March. Hunter is in the midst of an honest-to-god Stateside tour, something few jazz types can pull off in 2010.

In winter coat and stocking cap, he shuffles past and explains his dilemma, and its solution: His Fender Princeton amp blew out last night in Virginia, and his mother, who is driving to the gig from Hunter’s grandparents’ house in New York, is going to swing by and grab his replacement amp from Hunter’s home in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and two young children.

Mom to the rescue.

In Philadelphia two nights prior, Hunter’s situation seemed more impressive. At World Café Live’s upstairs supper club, he played two sets for a sold-out, Friday-night crowd consisting largely of young people: nice-looking, well-groomed young people chatting and sipping on specialty beers, neither as bookish and musician-centric as a jazz crowd nor as overtly druggy as the hardcore jam-band camp. An off-duty employee toward the front remarked that it was the most packed he’d ever seen the place.

But the set was even more interesting toward the back of the club, where the bandstand was no longer visible. Opening with a shuffle arrangement of “Welcome to Frankfurt,” a tune that originated as wordless new wave on his Baboon Strength album from 2008, Hunter and band presented a clinic in melding jazz smarts with danceable cadences. The music relied on unfettered swing and R&B grooves and clear-cut, familiar-sounding melodies. The guitar improvisations evoked hard electric blues or leaned on jazzier harmony; they were sometimes filigreed but most often sensible and sparse—so streamlined, in fact, that they seemed unnaturally selfless. Perfectly placed rhythm-guitar parts and a series of lucid basslines, whether walking blues changes, percolating underneath a second-line beat or strutting in a ’60s R&B fashion, anchored the whole shebang. But there was a catch, what John Ellis calls the “‘What the fuck?’ factor.”

If you weren’t already aware of it, you’ve clearly never heard of Charlie Hunter until now. Hunter holds down the high and low ends; he does this using an athletic fingerstyle technique and a custom bass/guitar hybrid instrument he helped innovate in the 1990s, which feeds his signal into separate amplifiers. It’s this peculiarity that has defined him throughout his career, and, along with his open mind and unshakable rhythmic sense, has helped afford him a career as one of the few players without a formal music education to achieve a high profile in jazz over the past quarter-century.

His public history now snakes through two decades of record-industry trends and the collapse of that industry altogether. He’s recorded for major labels, independent labels and put out his albums on his own; he’s played festivals and houses large and small, rock- and jazz-centered; and his list of credits and collaborations extends from downtown stalwarts (the drummer Bobby Previte), through neo-soul (D’Angelo), highly functioning jam-bands (Garage a Trois, whom Hunter left not long ago, “because it’d run its course” for him), and unabashed pop (John Mayer, a longtime fan who once asked Hunter to sign one of his guitar effects pedals). Most of all, he’s a restlessly creative bandleader whom labels—both the record kind and the sort used to categorize things—have failed.

Back in Baltimore, Hunter settles into one of the 8X10’s sparsely furnished greenrooms for an interview that will continue, after mom has arrived with the working amp, at a nearby sushi joint. First up is the new self-released album, available as a CD at gigs and online as a download. Its concept is brass band by way of Memphis and Brooklyn: With drummer Kalb, trombonists Curtis Fowlkes and Alan Ferber and trumpeter Eric Biondo, there is serious playing happening, yet things never stray too far from the pocket. (Brass instruments, Hunter explains, especially trombones, gather steam from “playing inside the rhythm section rather than over top of it.”) Its curious title, Gentlemen, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid, is an actual statement by an older bandleader some of the guitarist’s colleagues have played with, and it effectively reflects Hunter’s character: funny, plainspoken and cynical.

Sonically, the barebones recording sounds great, with a raw, vintage feel Hunter achieved by recording straight to half-inch tape, in mono, without overdubs. And if PR material is to be believed, this plan of action was purely a matter of aesthetics. Not so. “It’s pretty simple: It was a money thing,” Hunter says flatly. “I made the record myself so I had to do what I could afford, and I wanted to have a really good-sounding record.”

It’s a disarmingly frank answer right off the top, but it turns out Hunter is a pretty frank guy. Everyone in improvised music seems to be having an especially difficult time now, but not everyone will tell you about it in Hunter’s workaday sort of way, or admit specifically when and how money has been their catalyst. (He owns up to, for instance, the unique marketability of his circus-like instrument.) Plenty of musicians think critics are worthless, but few would tell the editor of a jazz magazine, with the tape recorder rolling, how music coverage is “really just a big advertising scam—nothing else.” And many musicians who sell in jazz numbers have turned to alternative business models in order to release their albums, but few can tell you how inefficient labels are with such apolitical directness. Today Hunter believes the label/artist association is an “inherently flawed” one. “It’s a relationship of a landowner and a tenant farmer,” he says. “The situation is good for making a lot of money off of more incredibly mainstream kind of pop-music acts that end up on a Taco Bell cup. But not for people like myself.

“’Cause I sell so few records,” he continues. “My goal is not to make any money; if that was my goal I’d be disappointed every time. The goal is to recoup the cost of this record and then make enough money for the next record.”

The fact that Hunter came up in hippie-fied Northern California seems odd, because so much about the clean-living, driven guitarist screams East Coast. “People say that California’s laidback,” he says in an old Blue Note press release. “That may be true, but I’m not laidback.” He has all the markings of a nice guy—he’s polite, he laughs often, he’s nice to his mother—but he pulls few punches. “Charlie has a lot of opinions,” laughs keyboardist and former trio-mate Erik Deutsch, remembering how certain synths he brought to gigs didn’t pass muster. “He’s a very big presence, and he’s in the driver’s seat the whole time,” says John Ellis, recalling how Hunter would spontaneously change form and key on the bandstand. Ellis also remembers Hunter having an ongoing battle with his custom instrument. “He was constantly having [luthier] Ralph [Novak] make him a new guitar, and sending the old one back,” he says. “And he’s very willing to take the damn thing apart and put it back together. He can be obsessive, for sure.”

Both Deutsch and Ellis are also casualties of a somewhat antsy leader who, as Deutsch says, “is always looking for new inspiration and new sounds and new directions—and does that with new bands.” But both adored their time in different versions of his group. “I have to say that was one of the most fun bands I’ve ever been involved with,” Ellis says of Hunter’s trio that also included drummer Derrek Phillips. “I could say for myself, I’d play with Charlie forever,” says Deutsch.

The pop-culture writer Chuck Klosterman once wrote about how if he had a choice between interviewing an artist on the brink of or in the midst of success, or interviewing an old-lion sort with an ace in the hole and nothing to lose, he’d choose the latter every time. Hunter probably wields that devil-may-care straightforwardness a lot more freely than many of his mid-career peers, but he doesn’t harbor the jadedness you’d encounter in certain veteran free improvisers or postbop-era guys still waiting for that royalty check. At 43, he’s got the steady gaze of a survivor.

The rest of this article appears in the July/August 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in July/August 2010

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