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.
Long time fan Adam Gensler, had the opportunity to discuss all things Hunter with the master himself in this multi-part series.
CHARLIE HUNTER INTERVIEW | PART I
The master of the 8-string guitar sits down with JamBase to talk shop; first of a multi-part series celebrating his new album >>
CHARLIE HUNTER INTERVIEW | PART II
The conversation in this multi-part series continues as Charlie discusses posture, politics, projects and more... >>
CHARLIE HUNTER INTERVIEW | PART III
Charlie discusses his joy from playing with Garage a Trois as well as other worldly issues in this multi-part series >>
CHARLIE HUNTER INTERVIEW | PART IV
In the final part of series, Charlie Hunter discusses the talented musicians that helped create the new album >>
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.
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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
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Adam: When you tour with your latest quartet, how does your mindset, preparation, or role differ from when you are playing in a side project, such as Garage a Trois or back when you were involved with TJ Kirk?
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Is there a different way of thinking? Is playing with your quartet more structured?
Adam: It seems that your playing with Garage a Trois is very loose and necessarily spontaneous. It seems that you are willing, and required, to turn on a dime.
Charlie: Well, Garage a Trois is essentially four leaders. We come together and say, “Let’s play this. Let’s play that.” But everybody is very giving and very open. And everybody just lets it happen. Someone takes up the thread and someone takes it somewhere else. There is no bully in that band. So everyone kind of lets it go, and at various times one of us takes the initiative and takes the song different places. And it is great fun. We always have a real blast with that. It is also a great outlet for me to do all kinds of stuff that I never get to do as a leader.
When I take my band out--and I’m the leader--I feel like we are all on a wheel. And I’m the hub in the center of it all. The spokes kind of have to be attached to me. So, to make it work, I’ve got to put myself in a different kind of position.
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And that, to me, is always the most important thing—doing whatever it takes of you to make the concept work the way it should work. Which means, if I play with Garage a Trois, I just have to make sure that I’m keeping the groove together and being creative and I just do my part. If I’m playing in Mike Clark’s band, I just have to make sure to make those bass lines happen and to keep it all together. In a duo setting, that means I’ve got to get really creative and take the stuff to different places and be very communicative with the drummer. And, you know, if I’m playing in my group now, especially with a vocalist, I feel like I’m the glue that keeps everything stuck together. I just have make sure that the feel is right, the vibe is right, the dynamics are happening, I’m making the vocalist sound really good, or whatever it is. I feel like I’m not so much of a guitar soloist on this record that I just put out.
With each different group you have a different set of responsibilities. And that’s what’s fun--being able to morph yourself into the person that is going to make the band sound as good as you think it is supposed to sound.
Adam: When you are playing live with your band, how structured are the songs? Do they ever go places that you hadn’t anticipated when the song started?
Charlie: Yeah... it should.
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Adam: I was hoping you’d say that.
Charlie: Hold on one second
(the conversation diverges...)
I’m digressing. Where were we?
Adam: We were talking about you.
Charlie: That’s boring.
Adam: (laugh) No offense. It does pale into comparison to what is going on [read: the September 11, 2001 attacks, and their repercussions].
Charlie: You got that right. But, you know, I think we are going to need music and the creative arts a lot more than we had. I’m tooting my own horn here, but I feel we are going to need the kind of stuff that we are offering--from an honest place that is not about a lot of posturing. I hope that we can do some good with it, you know?
We need people like musicians more than ever right now. It becomes much more important to make people feel that they are still human through all of this.
Adam: That was an interesting aspect about this particular event. I think most people associate music with something that can make them feel better when they are feeling down. And I totally agree with that perspective. Music has been a major source of happiness and learning for me—all of the good things that I want to become.
But when this last thing happened on Tuesday, strangely, I didn’t feel like seeing or hearing music. I remember listening to something in the car that I always enjoy, something I consider to be one of the finest pieces that I’ve ever listened to and as I started to get into it, I actually felt hollow, a little bit, for feeling good about music. It was a really bizarre feeling.
Charlie: Nah... you should feel good about music.
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Adam: I don’t know. This has been a really strange 10 days. The impact it has had on me has been quite profound and bizarre.
Charlie: Yeah, well, it is only starting.
Adam: That’s for sure.
I want to talk about the vocals on your album because it is obviously a major departure from where you have been. I read something from either a press release or your website where you said, “This is what I listened to growing up” and I think you made a comment to the effect of, “When you are playing on the streets, you gotta have vocals or you starve.”
Charlie: That’s right.
Adam: ...which is a good response to incorporating vocals into your overall concept, but it begs the question: why did you wait so long to incorporate them? Was it that you wanted to find and define your own musical voice before introducing someone else’s?
Charlie: I don’t know. It just happened when it was supposed to happen. I just wasn’t at that point in the road where I wanted to do something like this yet. Now I think I was. I’m glad I did.
Adam: Did it require anything different as far as your approach to the album?
Charlie: Yeah. I think I became a lot more of a producer and probably a lot less of a guitar player. (laughs).
Adam: What is the difference between both writing and producing the album versus writing the songs and not being involved in the production aspect?
Charlie: Well, a producer is all about vision. When you bring in a producer, you are dealing with someone else’s vision of what you are, which can be very cool. However, with a record like this I knew exactly how it was supposed to sound before I even go into the studio. And I just tried to get after that and make it sound even better.
I’d like to work with different producers at some time or another, but I feel good playing that role now.
Adam: Do you think you’ll ever produce another artist’s record or CD?
Charlie: I’d love to. If anybody wants to call me, I’m ready.
Adam: I’ll see what I can do.
Charlie: Go right ahead.
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Adam: How did you choose the vocalists appearing on your album? How did that all come together?
Charlie: It was totally serendipitous. I had wanted to work with some of these people. I had wanted to work with Mos Def. I knew I wanted to have Theryl [de Clouet of Galactic] on the record. Kurt [Elling]’s an old friend.
When we went into the studio, we had four days to record the instrumental tracks for the record...
Adam: (interrupting) And is everyone laying down the tracks at the same time?
Charlie: Oh yeah! Definitely. It’s all live.
We went in and essentially recorded all of the instrumental tracks on the first day. Then, my manager, who was there, said, “Oh, you know, Theryl is in Philly. And he said he can come up.” So the next day he came up and we recorded his two tracks that day. We didn’t know what we were going to play when he arrived. We just got some music together and we did it.
Then, we heard Norah Jones’ demo CD. And I immediately thought, “I’ve got to get this lady on my album.” So we called her up and she was actually working waiting tables when we called. So she said, “Yeah, I’ll come down tomorrow.” Norah came down the next day and we worked her tunes up and did them.
And that night, we got a call in the studio from Mos Def: “Oh yeah, I’ll come down.” So he came down. I had an idea for the song “Creole.” I had already written that tune, more or less as an instrumental, and then I said to him, “Man, try to put something on this.” And he sat down and wrote the lyrics in about twenty minutes.
Charlie: Yeah. And, boom. We had it. And by four o’clock in the morning we had a record.
Adam: I particularly enjoy the feel as “Street Sounds” segues into “Rhythm Music Rides Again” and as the Kurt Elling tune, “Close Your Eyes,” segues into “Percussion Shuffle.”
Charlie: I really labored over the sequence. I always do that.
Adam: It has a nice effect. In both cases, you are literally put into one mood with the vocals and suddenly the mood shifts into the instrumental tunes. There is literally a launching off, an airy release, into instrumental space. I think it works pretty well.
Charlie: Oh, good! I’m glad.
Adam: You like taking contemporary songs and rearranging them. Each time, your interpretation is completely different from the original, yet the essence of the particular song always remains.
Charlie: I think if you start out with a good tune, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. The song just has to have that structure-- a real solid frame that can take a lot of beating. That’s why that Bob Marley record came out good. It takes a serious beating, but you still know it’s his music at the end of the day.
Adam: So, is there a lot music out there that you feel can’t hold up to that?
Charlie: What do you mean?
Adam: How do you decide on a particular tune? How do you know “Fly Like an Eagle” and “More Than This” are songs that can take that beating? Why not...
Charlie: (interrupting) Go for it. Give me an example.
Adam: Give you an example. Um...(at a loss for words) How about, um, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson?
Charlie: Um... that, to me, is the weakest part of that whole Thriller album. That’s the weakest tune. Most of his tunes have really good hooks. They are really old school and have genuine Motown style. They have great chord changes, great hooks, great countermelodies, and great backing parts as well. For instance, the bass line is not usually an accompanying bass line, but rather is a melody itself.
Some of those songs have been heard so much, but some of his tunes you could do great stuff with. I wouldn’t choose “Thriller” because it is not my favorite tune.
Adam: Yeah, it’s not mine either. But you put me on the spot there.
The last thing I wanted to talk to you about was how various rooms influence your playing style. For instance, when you walk into Bimbo’s versus when you walk into the Elbo Room versus playing at the Greek [all Bay Area venues], is there anything about each of those rooms that impacts what you are going to play or how you are going to play it?
Charlie: Definitely. As far as setlists go, we just take our song lists on stage and play.
The Greek Theatre is a big place, but is still as close as you are going to get to the audience while playing in such a big place. You can play some quieter stuff than you would imagine, but you most certainly have to play some hard-hitting stuff.
If you are going to play a place like Bimbo’s, which is a much more intimate place—although it can hold 900 people--your dynamic level can really be elongated to the point of being a little more dramatic.
As for a place like the Elbo Room, it just feels really loose.
Adam: Are you talking to the band about the room? Or do you feel that they are all professionals and can figure it out on their own?
Charlie: Oh yeah—we know what we are supposed to do.
Adam: Where do you think your music is going from here? Each album seems to have a completely different feel.
Charlie: Yeah. I don’t know.
Adam: So you figure that something will come up and you’ll just follow the passion?
Charlie: Yeah. We’ll just see where it goes logically.
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