The 8-string guitar master, Charlie Hunter, certainly has left audiences rapt
with his unique style and that crazy instrument of his. His newest album,
Songs from the Analog Playground, is now out on Blue Note Records.
Long time fan Adam Gensler, had the
opportunity to discuss all things Hunter with the master himself in this
multi-part series. Read Part I
Adam: When I first started seeing you play, you would stand a lot. In
the last couple of years, however, you are clearly sitting down more. Is there
a different way that you are thinking about the music? Is there more
percussion involved that you want to hone in on now? Does sitting down allow
you to you to more easily maneuver along the neck of the guitar?
Charlie: What happened was I got such bad tendonitis. My playing
posture was so messed up that I basically had to start all over again.
Adam: That guitar must be pretty heavy, I guess.
Charlie: Yeah, it sucks. But what are you going to do? You just deal
with it. And I decided that sitting down felt a lot better. It took a while
to get used to, but now I can’t even imagine standing up and playing.
Adam: I’m told (Jerry) Garcia had tremendous scoliosis. He had a MIDI
in his guitar and it completely screwed up his posture.
Charlie: Yeah, it really messes up people. You are concentrating too
much on the music (at the time) to really think about those things, but you
really have to take time and work on it. I’m still working on it. I am still
working on getting better with posture. I’m much better now than I was.
Adam: Several years ago, you played with Michael Franti. He is
a very political individual who clearly uses his music as a distribution
channel for certain topics and ideas. I would think you would have to be at
least moderately political to have performed with him on a regular basis. Yet,
I don’t really see that perspective from your music since then.
Charlie: Yeah, well, I think I am (opinionated about politics and
social issues)—when it comes to it. I mean I definitely am. Michael and I
would argue for hours and hours about different topics. I’m from Berkeley.
What can I do? I don’t think you can escape that growing up there. At least
then—I know it is a different, more Republicanized place now. But when I was
growing up, it was a very radicalized, liberal place to live.
However, I try to keep all of those things that I’m interested in separate from
my music. It is because I was a working person. I know what is it like to
work at a really difficult job all week. And at the end of the week you really
want to go see something that makes you feel a whole lot better and lifts your
spirits. For me, music, especially instrumental music--although vocal music
can do this and is really great too--speaks to a certain part of one’s soul or
psyche that verbal language and the types of ideas that come from it don’t. And
I feel like that’s my job—to uplift people in that way and not to beat them
down. I will get involved in discussions, benefits, and all of those things.
But I really have a different mission.
Adam: Speaking of benefits, after Calder [Spanier] died, I saw you play
at the Great American [Music Hall in San Francisco] for his wife and, I guess,
now born child.
Adam: If Calder were alive today, do you think he’d be playing with Bob
Charlie: Oh Jesus! (laughs) Because everyone else who has played in my
Charlie: I don’t think so. I don’t think he’d have been interested in
that. I kind of sincerely doubt it.
Adam: That question was meant as a joke.
Charlie: Oh yeah. Sure. I know. But I really don’t think he would
have been interested in that.
Adam: After Calder passed away, your next two albums were much more
percussive and there is really no sax voice.
Charlie: Right. The next three records, actually.
Adam: Well, isn’t there a little bit of sax on the self-titled one? I
think two or three tracks or something.
Charlie: Sorry. You’re right.
Adam: Is that coincidence? Were you purposely searching for something
different or were you already going toward a more percussive, less
horn-oriented sound (before Calder died)?
Charlie: I was already moving toward that. And after Calder died, I
just felt like—it was pretty heavy for me. I felt like it was serendipitous
that I wasn’t pursuing that type of sound in that way.
Adam: Your current band is the first band with a saxophonist in it
Charlie: Yeah! It is the first one. And he is great. John [Ellis]
just kicks ass. He really plays great lyrical music and has a great big sound.
He is very musical, but he plays in the band. He is into what the band is
doing. He is not a show boater. He is not out there representing for the
football fans. He is into the band thing, and that is what I’m about right
Adam: And this is also the first time since the other quartet with
Calder and [Scott] Amendola, where you took the band in to do an album. When
you were writing this album, were you writing to a person? Were you writing
specifically for John Ellis when you were thinking of the sax part or were you
actually thinking of it in the more general terms of “the song”?
Charlie: I definitely think of people’s sensibilities. Coming to New
York, for three years, I got a chance to play with the greatest musicians ever.
And it was great. I was playing with Leon Parker and Adam Cruz and just
getting hooked up with all of these amazing musicians: Mike Clark, Josh Roseman
and, of course, Peter Apfelbaum.
And I realized, “Well, this was great.” And I really feel that I got a great
education and I’m still getting an education. But I enjoy having a band. So I
got some younger guys and I explained to them the musical space that I wanted
to explore. I explained how it works and what everyone’s job is in the unit.
So, basically, I try to write for the concept, to write for the group. But
then I’m always trying to expand that as well and not get bogged down in
writing the same thing over and over. I try to really, really expand on it as
much as I can to keep it growing and evolving.
Adam: And is that different from, say, when you were working on the
Duo album? When you were working on that, did you have Leon Parker in
mind or were you just writing?
Charlie: Yeah. I definitely had Leon in mind. But that doesn’t mean
that it can’t work with other people. But I definitely think that there is
something really personal about it. When I think of music that I am most
impressed and most inspired by, I think of Thelonius Monk and how he wrote.
And how a lot of the stuff I feel he wrote with Charlie Rauss in mind. Or Duke
Ellington and how he, over many years, wrote with all of the different people
that were in his band in mind. And how the people in Motown wrote for
different singers. You know, they would write different things. I think
writing within the context of a particular person’s sensibilities puts your
mind in a different state where it can operate and get the most you can out of
Stay tuned to JamBase for more of this multi-part interview with Charlie
Hunter. Read Part I