Interview by Adam Gensler
September 21, 2001
Charlie Hunter is back, having once again changed his eight-stringed approach to jazz. His latest release, Songs from the Analog Playground (due out September 25 on Blue Note Records) is once again a totally different style of record than each of his preceding releases. Always changing his approach is just one of the reasons Charlie Hunter is one of the most intriguing faces of modern jazz. Here is part one of a four part conversation with Charlie, covering everything from his inventive instrument to using vocalists on the new album to what makes a great cover song.
Adam: There are a lot five-string bass players, and even some six-string bass players out there. Steve Masakowski [Astral Project] plays a seven-string guitar. How many musicians do you think there are out there playing what you got going?
Charlie: Well, I know there is another couple of them.
Adam: (surprised) Oh, really?
Charlie: Yeah, there’s a guy who just started in L.A. And I have a student up in Boston. So, yeah, there are a couple of people who are starting to do what I’m doing.
I would have to say that the guys with six-string basses, most them have that to have an extended range when they are soloing. They are not playing bass lines and something else.
And Steve Masakowski’s thing is more piano oriented. His thing, I think, is to have a wider range to play larger voice chords, for solo runs, and to play within. But I don’t think what he is very much going after…
Adam: (interrupting) I would agree. What you are going after definitely seems to be different.
Charlie: Yeah, I am definitely trying to go after a rhythmic, melodic, harmonic counterpoint thing. I’m just trying to create a different vocabulary out of what is essentially the major, or rather, the more important parts of the bass and the guitar.
Adam: So there are other people doing it. Did they pick that up from you? Where do they get the instrument? Do they have to call the guy up who made yours?
Charlie: Yeah, from Ralph Novak up in San Leandro (California). Yeah, I mean I guess they just heard what I’ve been doing and were like, “Oh, I can do that. Let me just learn what it took him about 10 years to put together in a year, and then I can make my own style.”
Adam: Right on.
Charlie: So I’m sure that’s what they are doing right now.
Adam: What gave you the idea? When did it occur to you, “Hey, I could marry these two and make it work for me?"
Charlie: It was a gradual thing. And it is still evolving. I’m still learning how to make more of a musical statement on the instrument. Rather than just trying to make it, I’m really trying to make a statement with it and trying to carve out something with it.
I think it just came naturally out of the fact that I’m kind of a closet drummer and I also played bass on the streets for a while when I was a street musician.
Adam: That was in France?
Charlie: France and Switzerland and… all over Europe.
Adam: That was before you actually picked up on combining the guitar and the bass?
Charlie: Yeah, definitely.
Adam: Because you see some pretty freaky instruments out there when you are walking the streets in Europe.
Charlie: Yeah, I guess. I’m not sure if I’ve seen that many.
Adam: I’ve seen some people who have made some pretty bizarre things. And it gets you lookin’ and the next thing you know, you are dropping some coins beside their feet.
Charlie: That’s right!
Adam: When you first started playing your instrument, say, when Les (Claypool) first saw you play it, did he look at that thing and say, “What the hell is that?”
Charlie: Well, yeah, I guess. I think people kind of knew me in the Bay Area just because I played so many gigs. I think I became pretty commonplace around the Bay Area. When I go out [of the Bay Area] —because people still don’t know, no one really knows who I am, so I end up really answering a lot of questions about the instrument. And, you know, I’ll probably end up doing that for as long as I play it!
Adam: That’s right. Well, two last questions on the instrument.
Adam: When you are playing on co-bills, or any other times that other musicians are around, does anyone try to give it a go?
Charlie: I think that they can try to, maybe they can play a little bass line on it. Or maybe they’ll play a little guitar on it, but it is just such a specialized thing. It totally takes a specialized technique and it just really takes a lot of…it is just really hard, man. It is a really difficult-- it has so many angles and difficulties involved in it. But, I’m a freak about challenges, so I probably would not have it any other way.
Adam: So you haven’t had the opportunity to hand it to anyone you really respect, watch them flounder and sit back and laugh?
Charlie: People aren’t really that interested in trying it. (Light laughter). But Tuck Andress played some stuff on it. Pat Martino played it a minute. John Scofield tried to play it. Pretty much everyone tries to give it a go, but it just takes so much time.
Adam: At what point did you transfer from doing this as a hobby and quitting your day job, so to speak? And what was that like?
Charlie: Well, let’s see. I worked moving furniture for a long time. I did music concurrently with other day gigs. I’d have gigs at night and I’d have a day gig too. I think I probably have just been playing music for the last, oh ten years, probably.
Adam: Was there any one point where it crystallized for you?
Charlie: Well, I’ve known that that was what I was going to do since I was fourteen years old. It is difficult in this country to make a living as a musician. It is still difficult, and I guess I would be considered to be doing well. But I love what I do, so I am not complaining about it.
Adam: I give you a lot of credit for giving it a go. What I really respect about musicians and, in a certain way of thinking, I look at entrepreneurs similarly, is that they both really go for it and jump into the unknown. Yeah, entrepreneurs are more geared toward money, but they are still taking a chance, can flop on their face and not be well received.
Charlie: I think it is a little deeper than that because when you really decide that you are going to be a creative musician with the goal of creating your own sound and doing your own thing, you have pretty much decided upon a life of always swimming upstream. You have decided on a life of always pushing the van up the hill when someone has the breaks on. You just have to realize that and hope that it all evens out.
Stay tuned to JamBase for more of this multi-part interview with Charlie Hunter. Read Part II! Enter to win a copy of his latest CD, Songs From the Analog Playground.