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.

Charlie: Yeah.

Adam: If Calder were alive today, do you think he’d be playing with Bob Weir?

Charlie: Oh Jesus! (laughs) Because everyone else who has played in my band has?

Adam: Exactly.

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 since then.

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 now.

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 the idea.

Stay tuned to JamBase for more of this multi-part interview with Charlie Hunter. Read Part I

[Published on: 9/26/01]

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