Charlie Hunter: Right Now Groove
In the parlance of their parents' times, they are "waiting for a miracle." A good number of the young people loitering in front of the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, Va., tonight are sitting patiently in their tie-dyed shirts or apron tops, holding one finger in the air. At a sporting event, this gesture would mean "We're No. 1" or perhaps "Hot dog over here," but in this context it signifies "I had neither the means nor the foresight to purchase a ticket to this event, and it would greatly benefit your karma should you deign to give or sell me one." Elsewhere, some gyrating young women are honing their Hula Hoop skills, much to the distraction of the venue's security guards, who completely ignore the flagrant scalping going on underneath their noses.
Inside, the theater is more opulent than P. Diddy's bathroom, resplendent with heavy maroon curtains and gilded doodads sticking out from every wall. A curious haze hangs over the proceedings, especially curious since the Carpenter Center is a nonsmoking venue and no fog machines appear to be in use. Gentle people and fellow travelers greet one another in the aisles, exchanging hugs and sharing memories of summer festivals. A battalion of home tapers is bivouacked in the balcony; newsletters on chairs make reverent references to mystical crap such as the "djembe birds of the borderline."
A roar greets guitarist Charlie Hunter as he and his trio take the stage, heads down as if they're intimidated by the weeded hordes so stoked by their presence. "Thank God the music's here!" screams a guy in a backwards baseball cap and a shirt that turns the Adidas logo into a pot leaf.
Welcome to a jazz show.This seems like as good a time as any to mention that one of Charlie Hunter's boyhood homes was a school bus. "It's funny," he says, laughing. "All these years that I tried my hardest to get as far away from the hippie experience as possible-as you would probably want to if you grew up in that situation-it's funny that somehow they found me later on in life!"
His dressing room at the Carpenter Center, while spartan, seems a bazillion miles away from those days. But for Hunter, a son of Berkeley, Calif., the bohemian life is never too distant. Sure, he quit Northern California for Brooklyn years ago, the better to concentrate on his jazz-scene chops, and he recently moved out to New Jersey, the better to concentrate on his family (a wife and two kids), but yes, that is someone soundchecking a flute through a delay pedal downstairs, and yes, these hippie kids love him. The reason we're here, in fact, and not in some intimate jazz boîte, is that Hunter's trio is opening for the jam band String Cheese Incident.
"I get the cream of the hippie crop, what I call the 'hippie trickle-down,'" he says. "I feel like a lot of these quote-unquote jam bands are coming out of a rock kind of thing, and they're trying to improvise with a very limited vocabulary. But it's enough for their fans to get a little taste of something that's outside of the radio mainstream. I feel like these kinds of bands are a gateway for kids to make a journey to be able to listen to music more like mine, or Medeski Martin & Wood, or people like Marc Ribot. We're not all born listening to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. We need to grow into that."
You wouldn't lose money betting that the only growing currently done by the kids outside involves hundreds of dollars' worth of hydroponic equipment, but it is true: Scratch a hippie, find a nonpop musician's last best hope for record buyers under the age of 40. The second-annual Bonnaroo festival, which took place this June in Tennessee, boasted a lineup that comprised artists as disparate as James Brown, jam-band stalwarts Widespread Panic, bluegrass pinups Nickel Creek, New York City noise rockers Sonic Youth, überhip DJ RJD2 and reggae pioneers Toots and the Maytals. Charlie Hunter was there as well, with his white noise improv band Garage à Trois.
The only thing most of these artists have in common? Mainstream radio won't play them, major labels won't sign them and inattentive music consumers have no use for them. Kind of sounds like-well, a bit like jazz, doesn't it?
"Even if you don't dig the music or the culture, you gotta give it up for jam bands operating so successfully outside of the mainstream," Hunter says. "And it is a real alternative, because it's coming from the same background as music within the cultural mainstream. But they're doing their own business model.
I think we've got to applaud that." Indeed, while a few of the Grateful Dead-influenced groups that became the objects of bidding wars in the post-Dave Matthews/Hootie gold rush remain on major-label rosters, most jam bands operate as extremely successful small businesses, booking their own tours, putting out their own records, even in many cases running their own charitable foundations. (The String Cheese Incident's charity is called-wait for it-Gouda Causes.)
Hunter divides his time between this demimonde and the more traditional jazz milieu. A couple weeks before this show I saw him in the Ram's Head Tavern, a more traditional jazz club in Annapolis, Md. While there were in fact two dudes in the vestibule hoping for a miracle-as well as a home taper who did a really convincing imitation of a roadie, sporting a ponytail, a Harley-Davidson shirt and one of those tiny flashlights-most of the (considerably smaller) sellout crowd was a typical jazz audience in khakis, button-down shirts and sweaters. Lots of sweaters. They bobbed their heads appreciatively as Hunter, then leading his quintet-drummer Jeff Clapp (filling in for Hunter's usual drummer, Derrek Phillips), tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Ellis, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, harmonicist Gregoire Maret-found the pocket, and they seemed oblivious to how ridiculously overpriced the food and drinks were, the key to a return engagement.
"If I play a really hardcore jazz club, it alienates [my rock audience], and if I play a really hardcore rock club, it alienates the people who go to the jazz clubs," Hunter says. "So I have to find the places in between, like Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, or Yoshi's [in Oakland, Calif.] is good, or the Ram's Head. It's a diverse audience, which I'm real proud of."
Still, there's no way he'd trade his jazz audience for the limelight afforded by the jam-band circuit. "I'd love the money, believe me," he says, "but there's not much more I'd enjoy about that, because when you become such a commodity, the musical experience with your audience and your dedication to your craft wears down a little bit. But if all of a sudden tomorrow we were doing exactly what we were doing and we were playing 1,000-seat halls, which is about as likely as being struck by lightning and winning the lottery, I would be fine with that.
"It's a business, unfortunately," he continues. "Our society isn't driven by spiritual wealth or intellectual wealth or wealth of the good life-living and eating and being with your family. We're only driven by the bottom line. When you try to make a living in this country that incorporates those other kinds of wealth, it makes it kind of difficult. But you know, it's just a challenge, and it's fun to find a way to try to make it work."Charlie Hunter has seen wealth upfront, when he opened for U2. Not with any of his jazz groups-heavens, no-but about 10 years ago, when his main gig was playing bass with brainy hip-hoppers the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Prior to that, he'd been teaching guitar in Berkeley's Subway Guitars. Hiphoprisy founder Michael Franti worked there as well, alongside Alvin Youngblood Hart and the dude from Testament, repairing guitars. (The store's owner went by the name Fatdog. Enough said.) Before that, he passed a few years as a street musician in Europe. And before that, he attended Berkeley High School, where he was two years ahead of Joshua Redman. (Other famous Berkeley High saxophonist alums include Peter Apfelbaum, whom Hunter's played with, and Tower of Power leader Lenny Pickett.)
"Josh and Dave Ellis were really involved with the jazz band, which I wasn't into at the time," Hunter says of his now-famous classmate and his original tenor man (who is not related to current saxophonist John Ellis), respectively. "I was really involved with licks. Rock licks, and just guitar stuff. Soul, R&B, whatever I could learn. Jazz was something I hadn't really come to in my evolution at that point."
It's amazing that jazz ever figured in Hunter's musical cosmology, given that one of his first guitar teachers was professor emeritus of cheeseball licketry Joe Satriani. "He was everybody's guitar teacher in Berkeley at the time," Hunter says. "He was the guy at the corner guitar store. But it also just so happened that he was great teacher, who motivated me when I was 14 to practice the mechanics of the instrument."
Young Charlie took up the guitar with the intention of learning how to play Anita Ward's 1979 disco hit "Ring My Bell," but Satriani soon had him checking out Jimi Hendrix. That led him to his mother's blues records; he cites Robert Johnson and Leadbelly as especially revelatory. As Hunter's musical appetite increased, his hometown was only too eager to indulge him. "Berkeley was such a great place to grow up," he says, "because music was happening all the time. Every Friday at the university, they would have free concerts. One week you could see Fela [Kuti], the next week would be the Talking Heads.
"I got into jazz by going to the library and trying to find more records," he continues. "At first, my friends, like Dave Ellis, were like, 'Check this Weather Report out,' which I couldn't really hear at that point. I didn't like it; I thought it was elevator music. And then I heard Charlie Christian and Lonnie Johnson. From the blues that I was into, it just immediately clicked. From there I heard Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I didn't have anybody in my family who knew about jazz. I just kind of found out myself by going to the library."
It was during this process of what he repeatedly calls his "musical evolution" that Hunter happened on two distinct sets of influences that cumulatively overwhelm all comers in Charlie's own ascent from the pond. The first group comprises vindicated maverick players such as Thelonious Monk and Rahsaan Roland Kirk as well as idiosyncratic guitarists Tuck Andress, Joe Pass and John Scofield.
And then there were the bassists. Hunter had stuck to the low notes throughout his tenure with Hiphoprisy, and he'd learned to play stand-up while in Paris. Again acting on the recommendations of friends, he became fascinated by Motown bassist James Jamerson, mambo pioneer Cachao and straight-ahead stalwart Ray Brown.
"I had an idea," he says: "I really like playing bass, 'cause I'd played bass for a while, I really like playing guitar, and I'm really into the idea of drums. How can I make this different sound I'm hearing come together?" To this end, Hunter commissioned a guitar he hoped would help him bag this chimera. The first iteration had seven strings-two bass and five treble-and he used it on his first post-Hiphoprisy recording, with Dave Ellis and drummer Jay Lane, 1993's The Charlie Hunter Trio. Released on Primus leader Les Claypool's Prawn Song label, the disc made a small splash in the alternative scene and was roundly ignored by the jazz world. That would change after Hunter, who'd since had luthier Ralph Novak shoehorn another bass string onto his dream ax, signed to Blue Note, then desperately trying to hippen up.
You'd be forgiven for thinking your copy of the Trio's 1995 Blue Note debut, Bing, Bing, Bing! was a mispress-perhaps stamped with the work of some forgotten soul-jazz organ combo instead. But track four is where the record noticeably lines up with its track listing. OK, it's a Nirvana cover, which seems to be obligatory for jazz dudes with a foot in the enemy's camp. But it's also the first time Hunter turns off his Leslie pedal and lets the guitar part of his guitar sound like a guitar (this follows a convincing impression of a pedal steel a track back). "I was young," he says, nonchalantly adding, "So I was trying to jack off, play all the parts as fast as possible and really try stuff that was super-difficult to do. It was hit-or-miss."
Critics largely agreed, though most noted that the lad had potential ("Stylistically it isn't quite fully achieved, but Hunter is unmistakably an energy-source and will surely make more of this intriguing approach," said the editors of the stuffy Penguin Guide to Jazz). Taking inspiration from both punk bands and his jazz heroes, Hunter hit the road for two straight years, stopping only to expand to a quartet on 1996's Ready...Set...Shango! with Dave Ellis, altoist Calder Spanier and drummer Scott Amendola. A less groove-heavy and more straightahead outing, Shango is also notable for including a track called "Teabaggin'," a term heretofore confined to interviews with the likes of John Waters.
"That was definitely some puerile stuff!" Hunter says, laughing. "When you're on the road, you hear things like that that kill you. And then you start trying to up the ante." (Teabagging, and I have waited my whole life to get paid to type just such a sentence, is the term for a male stripper slapping patrons on the forehead with his testicles.) "We were four guys driving around in a van for two years. The in-jokes just took over. I know people with much worse titles than that!"
His berserk touring and recording schedule (Natty Dread, Return of the Candyman and Duo were all recorded in 1997 and 1998), took its toll on T.J. Kirk, the tongue-in-cheek tribute band to Monk, Kirk and James Brown that Hunter somehow found time to form with Amendola and guitarists Will Bernard and John Schott in 1995. That group released two records on Warner Bros.-one of which, 1996's If Four Was One, was nominated for the best contemporary jazz instrumental Grammy and lost to Wayne Shorter's High Life-before bowing to Hunter's jazz commitments.
Clearly, Hunter's never been one for ruts. The aforementioned Duo, with percussionist Leon Parker, freed him from the tyranny of the almighty groove, even to the point of stretching out languidly on the Beach Boys' "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." His eponymous 2000 CD saw him leading a sextet that included Peter Apfelbaum. And then there's Songs From the Analog Playground, Hunter's 2001 bid for crossover success. But despite guests like Mos Def and one Norah Jones, then the object of much Big Apple buzz due to her standing-room-only sets at the Jewish community center Makor, Analog Playground's combination of Latin percussion, rapping and torchy Roxy Music covers failed to catch on. It didn't Getz/Gilberto, if you will.
"I tried!" Hunter protests. "I'm bummed [Blue Note] couldn't have done something with it. Even with Norah's success, I'm kind of impressed that no units have moved."
Hunter's realistic about the record business. "The way the music industry is now, you're not gonna be making a lot of money from your records. You're not gonna be staying home as much as you would like to. But even when the record industry was better, you'd make records and it would take you a long time to get your royalties."
The guitarist left Blue Note for John Medeski's Ropeadope last year. Everything you'd expect to have contributed to the divorce did-frustration over Analog Playground's sales, a growing sense that he wasn't much of a priority anymore, a feeling that the label was becoming less of a benevolent banana republic and more a fully-operated subsidiary of its corporate owner, EMI.
"Bruce Lundvall probably would have given me a million dollars," Hunter says. "But the corporation told him, 'You can't give him this money.' I can't really be a part of that kind of corporation. Bruce was cool. He let me go. It was probably kind of a relief to him!"
"It really wasn't a relief, frankly," Lundvall says. "I didn't want him to go. A lot of what was on his mind was that he was very sort of anti- the word jazz. We talked about that a lot. I said, 'I'm a jazz label. You don't have to call yourself a jazz artist, but that's what Blue Note is, since 1939, so you're a part of it.' Maybe he felt that he was being thought of as a jazz artist 'cause he was on Blue Note. He thought a little more broadly-he was embracing hip-hop music and everything else." Lundvall adds that he shares Hunter's disappointment about Analog Playground's sales, saying it just never took off at radio as the label had hoped. "I think he had very high hopes for that record, and we did too. So it's very hard to say what the problem was. I don't think it was for lack of spending money."
"Sure I'm making a lot less money with Ropeadope," Hunter says, "but they're my age, they're only distributed by a major corporation, and they're super-young proactive excited guys who go out in the pits and do battle. They're not about taking me out and wining and dining me. I'm like, 'We'll save the money. We'll drink some tap water, eat some rice and beans and you guys work your butts off, which is what I do.'"
Interlude: A Concise Taxonomy of Jazz Face
The four stages of jazz face, as experienced at Charlie Hunter's show in Annapolis. All expressions were traded between Hunter and drummer Jeff Clapp, unless otherwise noted.
One: "This smells bad, but it's somehow funny."
Two: "This smells bad, but I think you'll like it."
Three: -"This smells bad, but I can't stop saying yes."
(From the horn section.)
Four: "This smells bad, and I've got a lot of attitude about it."
"Oh man, that's horrifying," Hunter says when presented with this list. "I can't stand to see video of myself. It freaks me out. I don't want my kids to come and see me, because I don't want them to have to see that! You can't trip on that stuff. Ultimately, it's all about the music. If you make some silly faces, that's the price you pay."
Actually, what'll really freak Charlie Hunter's kids out is the day they first see a bass player, whom they'll no doubt think is the laziest person in the world. Indeed, there are times during the Richmond show when someone with her eyes closed, which was happening a lot more than you'd think, would have trouble figuring out just how many people were onstage, as Hunter and Phillips beatboxed, John Ellis switched between tenor sax, bass clarinet and flute (the latter two inexplicably drawing an outsized reaction from the crowd), and Hunter picked up the pandeiro, a sort of version 2.0 tambourine that he discovered in Brazil. It sounds like a drumset on its own.
But why won't Hunter ditch the novelty act and just hire a damn bass player?
"In the beginning, people would say, 'He can't do what a guitar player and a bass player can do. It's so limiting,'" Hunter says. "Yeah, it is, but I don't want to sound like a guitar player and a bass player; I want to sound like the eight-string guitar. It's an entirely different thing. It puts me in a more immediate space with the music, so I have to think to myself, 'What's limiting about that?' Sure, it's a liability if I want to get up there and play like Kurt Rosenwinkel, but I couldn't do that.
"I'm trying to develop myself through this instrument," he continues. "Physically and technically it's so difficult. The coursework is so hard. I feel like that's the joy of it, too. Every day I wake up and feel like, 'Man this is excellent. I have a ton of work to do.' In this day of immediate gratification, I feel like it's important for me, as an immediate-gratification
American, to learn."
Right Now Move, Hunter's new quintet set on Ropeadope, shows that the work is paying off. It's less a showcase for Hunter's chops than earlier outings (though it should be noted that he's not above setting off some fireworks live-in Richmond he performed a mindblowingly ornate, if somewhat snarky solo rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"). Recorded in one three-day stretch in Brooklyn, the album demonstrates Hunter's growing skills as an arranger. Working from his standard template of eight-string guitar, drums (courtesy Derrek Phillips) and a nasty groove, Hunter yields the spotlight to his characteristically idiosyncratic horn section-John Ellis on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, and Gregoire Maret on chromatic harmonica. Yes, harmonica.
"I wanted to see if I could write for a horn section," he says. "I was hearing trombone and tenor. I love that, it's so meaty. But then Gregoire had been sitting in with us, and I was like, I gotta figure out how to work this guy into the horn section. Even though harmonica doesn't really blend with the other two horns in the way you would expect. We had the first rehearsal, and I was like, 'This works! This sounds cool!'"
Then there's Garage à Trois, whose new LP, Emphasizer (Tone Cool/Artemis), is out concurrently. If there's a leader on this set it's drummer Stanton Moore, whose skittery rhythms carom from New Orleans death march to mutant Klezmer to Raymond Scott-style cartoon music and Meters-like cissy struts. As deep as Hunter's inroads to the jam-band scene are, Garage à Trois' are even deeper-Moore plays drums for up-and-comers Galactic, and vibes man Mike Dillon has played with Les Claypool's Frog Brigade. Among jam heads in the know, Garage's sweaty sets are becoming the ne plus ultra of forward-looking funk. "Dude, we take it out at Garage à Trois concerts!" Hunter exclaims. "And they're into it!"
There's a question that's been gnawing at me all day.
As the flute soloist winds up downstairs and the time for Hunter to go soundcheck grows closer, I can't resist any longer:
Charlie, can you shred?
"Oh no. There was a time when I attempted shredding, but I was never really a great shredder."
OK, but can you play "Eruption"?
"You know, I can just do that one lick, that doodly-doodly-doodly-der, because it was sort of de rigueur. But I can't do the whole thing."
Such a lapse in guitar-heroics credentials might seem odd given Hunter's history with Satriani, his workmanlike approach to his weird instrument, his concurrent commitments to touring and being with his family (while the Trio tours in the Hunters' minivan, the rest of the family makes do with the "broken-down old" station wagon).
But it's actually perfectly congruent with Hunter's stripped-down approach as well as his innate, almost Clintonian ability to compartmentalize, to play bass at the same time as guitar, to wow thousands of stoned college students or swing for a couple hundred yuppies.
"I don't do that," he demurs when asked about this facet of his talent. "It just does itself."
Even the bass playing?
"Well, that doesn't do it itself," says Charlie Hunter, laughing. "That's a bitch!"
Guitar: Novax eight-string guitar-bass hybrid, custom built by Ralph Novak, with fanned frets.
Pickups: Bartolini, custom made: bass (2): 8-S Precision-style bass; guitar (2): V92C neck (2 1/8-inch wide at the nut), V94D bridge.
Strings: Bass: La Bella Black Nylon Tape Wound (in E-A-D).
Guitar: Thomastik-Infeld Jazz BeBop (in A-D-G-B-E).
Amps: Bass: David Eden 1-4 x10; Euphonic Audio 2 x10 cabinet.
Guitar: Dredgetone custom; Victoria.
Odds & Ends: Aqua Puss Way Huge Electronics Analog Echo pedal; Ernie Ball Stereo Volume pedal; Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere; Boss TU-12 chromatic tuner; Monster Cable; Aerocase gear cases. In the past Hunter has also used: Korg G4 Leslie rotating speaker simulator; Dunlop Crybaby wah-wah; Mu-Tron Phasor II; mid-'70s Ross phaser.
Originally published in July/August 2003