Guitarist Charlie Hunter is riding high the day after his concert at the Knitting Factory, the New York City club that provided the early '80s birthing room for the alt-jazz movement. It was the Knit's kickoff show of this year's Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival and Hunter's first performance with his touring trio--percussionist Stephen Chopek and conga player Chris Lovejoy. Although the place was packed, it wasn't the crowd that thrilled Hunter, but the lean percussive sound that buoyed his eight-string guitar playing. "I've been practicing guitar a lot more and am better on my instrument," Hunter says from his Brooklyn home. "When I first started, I was playing behind a saxophone player and trying to stick to those jazz things and now I'm developing my own thing."
Jazz "things" like swing and following the standard improvisational format are considered boring and perhaps even passé in Hunter's milieu. His "thing" is cramming the popular music of his experience into the jazz bag and continually reaching out to new arenas. "Boss Guitar by Wes Montgomery and Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan got really worn out when I was a kid, those and Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues," Hunter recalls. "I like so much different music. Now I'm listening to Capoeira Batucada, which is Brazilian percussion, and soul jazz records and also lately I've been listening to a lot of Dexter Gordon."
The 32-year-old Oakland, Calif., native plays a specially designed guitar that has eight strings, the traditional six strings plus two bass ones. "I had been playing guitar for many years--listening to the playing of Joe Pass and Tuck Andress (of the pop jazz duo Tuck & Patti), and then I got a bass and worked that out," Hunter explains. "Then I was really just trying to make one instrument, so I had an eight-string made for me."
Once Hunter began playing his specialized instrument, the novelty of the concept attracted a lot of attention. And, as if on command, Hunter's early recordings--The Charlie Hunter Trio and Bing, Bing, Bing--showcased a lot of guitar pyrotechnics, heavy, layered chords giving way to spitfire single-note runs and electronic gizmos making the instrument burn as brightly as the sun in August. After a few listens it was easy to wilt under the heat of Hunter's music though rock fans enjoyed basking in it. Hunter himself seems to have realized that he was overplaying and last year's release, Duo, featured him only in consort with the inventive young jazz percussionist Leon Parker. "I'm not trying to showboat on my guitar," Hunter declares. "But I like to have the simple bass lines so the drums get to play a little more. And the drummers like it, too."
Hunter's new, self-titled CD is also lovely and lean. In addition to Parker, Chopek and percussionist Robert Perkins, he has tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and trombonist Josh Roseman in the studio with him. All hints of an eclectic meal made from last week's leftovers are gone, replaced by nouvelle cuisine. The opening "Rendezvous Avec La Vérité" is served up with a touch of funk and lots of cowbells. Soul is stirred into "Al Green," "Flau Flau" is spiced with New Orleans parade music, and Bill Frisell's wide-open spaces are hinted at on "Cloud Splitter."
The album's two cover songs, a Latinized version of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" and a hymnlike rendition of Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," pay homage to artists that Hunter holds in high regard. "I didn't really plan to record those, that's just what we did when we got in the studio," Hunter says. "Donny's phrasing and the way Monk composed and played 'Epistrophy'--when you hear people who've been to that spiritual center of the music, it's just incredible."
Though Hunter's own sound has been stripped down and reined in, his musical ventures have not. He performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Stanton Moore of Galactic and Skerik of Critters Buggin', and he is featured on D'Angelo's Voodoo. It is a new way of returning to the old ways in jazz, the days when music had few boundaries. As the first in a series of young, open-minded players that Blue Note Records signed, Hunter is on the advance guard of what is happening in not only jazz but popular music, making him an artist well worth keeping an open ear toward.