One of the difficulties of inventing your own instrument is that is doesn’t come with an instruction manual. For some, this prospect of freedom can be terrifying and require too much self-discipline to attempt. But Charlie Hunter is a unique musician who’s eager to trek to the source in order to express the full texture of his expression.
His custom made Novax eight-string guitar was specifically designed by Ralph Novak with alternate frets and separate signals for both the bass and guitar outputs. To play this instrument, Charlie thumbs the bass line along the top three strings while finger picking the guitar portion. The effect has a rhythmic call-and-response that a six-string guitar simply cannot create.
"It puts you in a different space in the music, and with the musicians on stage,” says the 33-year-old Hunter, “because you have to control so much of what happens. You are kind of equal with the drummer, because not only are you controlling the rhythmic propulsion but also the harmonics as well, so you can steer it. It’s like having a big, gigantic steering wheel.”
For ten years now Hunter has been learning to drive this sweet vehicle for a devout crowd. While his guitar influences include jazz greats Joe Pass and Tuck Andress (from Tuck & Patti), Hunter often uses his super axe to pound out a vocabulary reminiscent of a Hammond organ between the spaces of bass trot. “The music has a certain type of immediacy that it doesn’t have when you’re playing with a bass player and a guitar player, or a bass player and a keyboard player,” says Hunter. “But then there are a lot of things that they can do that I can’t do.”
To fill in the gaps, Charlie has proved himself to be an accomplished studio collaborator, and his ability to incorporate disparate musical sources - from R&B vocalists to orchestrated horns - has produced seven quality recordings for the Blue Note label. His album styles alternate drastically, from a complete jazzed reinterpretation of Marley’s Natty Dread to Duo, a collaboration with drummer/percussionist Leon Parker.
His last release, Songs from the Analog Playground, met with strong reviews last fall and utilized a collection of vocalists for the first time, including Mos Def, Norah Jones, Theryl "Houseman" deClouet and friend Kurt Elling. But this will be his last recording on the old jazz label, which is becoming more commercial — and can affect future recording budgets. “I decided that I would rather just be on my own and they were cool and let me go,” remarks Hunter. “I’m never going to sell enough records to warrant my being in a corporate situation. I think that I can sell around twenty thousand records which, playing the kind of music that I do — which is kind of accessible, though if you really think about mainstream America, isn’t accessible at all! — is a huge achievement. With the corporate situation, that’s nothing as far as they’re concerned. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing and I’m sure they’re happy to be doing what they’re doing.”
He’s also happy with his new touring quintet, a large arrangement for this usually sparse performer. The group will feature Hunter, long-time collaborators John Ellis (tenor sax) and Josh Roseman (trombone), plus drummer Terreon Gully, and Gregoire Maret on chromatic harmonica.
“It’s really fun, and the first time that I’ve had this big of a band,” continues Hunter. “It’s enormous with the horns, (and) with all these great soloists. You can go a lot of places when you have that many people.”
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