"I knew that I wanted to do this with my life from when I was 16", says Hunter about his musical career. His early recognition of this may have been influenced by the fact that he grew up in homes where his mother repaired guitars for a living in Berkeley, California where he has lived since he was eight years old. Charlie picked up his first guitar when he was twelve years old for $7, and a few years later was taking lessons from Joe Satriani, who at that time was just another guitar teacher. "People can't believe that but I was just another Berkeley kid and every Berkeley kid took lessons from Joe Satriani. He must have had a hundred students. He's a great teacher."
Charlie graduated from the same Berkeley high school whose music program produced saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Benny Green, but Hunter did not participate in the school's prestigious music program. "I really wasn't an institutional-type person. I had to go out and do my own thing. I was a naughty kid who went through the crazy angst-driven hysteria many teenagers experience," says Hunter, who doesn't deny not making it to class much. "Because I was from a low-income family, I was tracked into the lowest level of academic courses. You didn't get a chance to develop much self-esteem there, so I decided to focus on something that made me feel good. I graduated by the skin of my teeth."
"I was into everything at that point - blues, rockabilly, funk and soul...", but it wasn't until Hunter turned 18 that he discovered jazz. "My friends said, 'You got to get into jazz, you've got to listen to Weather Report.' And I thought, 'This is fusion. I'm not really into that.' So then somebody told me I should listen to Wes Montgomery, but the album I got was one of those with strings, and I was totally turned off. Finally, somebody said, 'You need to check out Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian and John Coltrane,' and it was like boom! I was instantly turned on. Their total sound and the reality of their playing just cut through everything. I suddenly wanted to play like that."
Hunter soon discovered and became heavily influenced by such organ legends as Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and Big John Patton. Mix this with some of his favorite artists from other genres such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Little Walter, and you can see where Hunter's sound came from. But it was the exposure to so many various genres of music that Charlie is thankful for. "Growing up in the Bay Area had a profound effect on my music. I was exposed to everything from the Dead Kennedy's to P-Funk to Art Blakey. In the Bay Area, you have all of these different musical cultures living together and all of these different musical cultures and their music gets semi-assimilated into this non-polarized state of being where hybrids are free to grow, and there are all of these genres and cross genres to play in and around."
Charlie had his first 7-string guitar (2 bass strings, 5 guitar strings, 2 pickups) made for him in the late eighties, and, after figuring out how to play his custom-made toy, left for Europe to perform on the streets of Paris and Zurich. Upon returning to the states and gigging around South of Market clubs in San Francisco and in Berkeley playing by himself (covering both bass and guitar parts) he hooked up with poet/rapper Michael Franti. They performed together as a duo from time to time until Franti formed the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and brought Charlie with him. In 1993, Charlie joined them on their tour which included a year's worth of huge stadium gigs opening for U2 along with Primus.
Charlie left Disposable Heroes in 1993 in search of more jazz-oriented music. "It was interesting, but that whole pop art scene was an overall drag. I love pop music, but it's a lot different when you get to sit back and be on the receiving end. It was difficult for me as an artist who's dedicated to searching for the spiritual core of music to have to deal with being in a situation where the quest is in the most superficial, consumer-driven aspects of the recording industry. It's hard enough driving for hours to get to the next city. When you get there, you at least want to play music that excites you." He recruited his old elementary school friend Dave Ellis who was first chair tenor in the Berkeley High jazz orchestra. Although they traveled in different social circles, they remained friends throughout the years. "We did play together occasionally. As a matter of fact, I think Dave still has blackmail tapes." It wasn't until now though that he and Ellis hooked up for serious jazz sessions. With the addition of Jay Lane, who played drums in the original lineup of Primus, the Charlie Hunter Trio was formed.
After a few months of gigging around the Bay Area, the Trio landed a weekly gig every Tuesday night at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. This is where Hunter says they began to jell as a group playing a distinctive Bay Area style of jazz. "That's where we learned to study the past and practice the present." Primus leader, Les Claypool, soon talked the band into recording an album for him on his own label, Prawn Song Records (the logo spoofs Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label portraying a shrimp with wings) a subsidiary of Mammoth Records. The self-titled Charlie Hunter Trio album was released at the beginning of 1994.
It wasn't long before Trio gigs were packed with curious listeners at such clubs as the Elbo Room and the Up and Down Club in San Francisco. Around this time, Charlie had another guitar made for him adding a bass-string to make it an eight-string guitar. It didn't take long for Blue Note Records to come along and snatch Hunter up for a recording contract. In 1995, Charlie Hunter Trio released their first major label record, Bing, Bing, Bing.
Attracting a younger, more rock-oriented audience to his gigs amuses Charlie. "I think that because we covered a Kurt Cobain song on the first Blue Note Record, people have decided we are really into alternative rock. Actually, Nirvana is probably the only alternative rock band that I know," Charlie adds with a laugh, "but Cobain was a really good songwriter."
"I think our music is an alternative to the suit-and-tie club that says you have to be well-to-do and super-intellectual to understand jazz music", Charlie continues. "We don't have that attitude. We play at places where people aren't interested in pigeonholing instrumental music." As a result, most Bay Area gigs were priced at no more than $5 and Charlie began exposing jazz to an audience that may otherwise have stayed away from it. "We're jazz musicians, but we're jazz musicians from their generation. That's who we share aspects of a common life with and that's who we are trying to reach."
"We know the lineage of jazz and we're completely in debt to it. We've built the foundation of our music on John Coltrane, on Charlie Parker, on Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk, all the way back through Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to the turn of the century. We want people to know that this is the music that means the most to us. But we also want our audience to know that we are from the twenty something generation, that we share the same experiences as a lot of people our age. That's what we want to communicate; that's what inspires us. I am very proud of the fact that our audience is very diverse. There are a lot of women who come to our shows. There are a lot of kids-I mean teens and young adults-who bring their parents. And there are a lot of moms and dads who bring their kids, and that makes me feel like we're doing something right."
As Hunter started garnering more attention, the media sought a label to describe his music...though with much difficulty. The most popular label was "acid jazz" which has come to signify everything from upbeat covers of jazz standards to drum-machine-backed, sampled dance music. "I don't really know what acid jazz is," says Hunter. "Sometimes the press needs a term to advertise something. We sometimes get resistance from mainstream [jazz] critics who label us [acid jazz]. What we play is accessible but not as accessible as all that." Charlie dislikes the term so much, he created his own label for the music he plays; "antacid jazz."
"I like to think of what I do as improvisational-oriented pop music. I'd say the only people doing what we're doing is Medeski, Martin & Wood, and they've been doing it longer, taking improvised music to the people." John Medeski agrees. "Basically, we're doing the same thing jazz did in the 40's and 50's. We're playing improvised music informed by the better pop sensibilities of the day. We take the groove and dance music we grew up with and create something that has a little more depth to it. In a certain way, we are doing the same thing as Charlie. We have that link of improvisational music, but we're making it relevant to what's going on today."
Shortly after the release of Bing, Bing, Bing, Jay Lane left the band to pursue more rock-oriented music. Scott Amendola replaced him on drums. "He's super light and quick and he brings action-packed percussion adventure to the set", Charlie says of Amendola. "He has an unstoppable attitude toward everything. He has too much inspiration to let anything get in his path. He's always pushing the rest of the band to the limit."
Charlie was familiar with Amendola from his side-project called James T. Kirk, a band whose name was cleverly titled from the fact that they played the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. "These are my champions," Hunter says. "We play all these crazy, wacky arrangements of their music, but when you go back and listen to the originals, it's like we really didn't need to change anything. That music is simply so amazing and vital." Accompanying Hunter and Amendola in this guitar-driven quartet is John Schott and Will Bernard. The band would combine the songs of Brown, Monk and Kirk...sometimes all at once! They were shortly signed by Warner Bros. to record, and with that came the concern of Paramount Pictures that the band's name may shed a bad light on the Star Trek character they so aptly named themselves after. As a result, they were forced to change their name and came up with T.J. Kirk, still holding on to the initials of their idols whose music they were performing. (Charlie later jokes that the band is named after the police television show, T.J. Hooker, whose main character was also played by William Shatner.)
Hunter's primary concerns still lay with his trio though. "The T.J. Kirk thing is just a side project. We were doing it just for fun, and the joke was on us when somebody signed us to a record contract." Hunter is still very serious about expanding his audience's appreciation of his heroes and turning as many of his contemporaries on to jazz as possible. "I hope that's what happens. People like Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk need to be household names because they made such important contributions to American culture." Most of all, Hunter admires Kirk, the late blind saxophonist who amazed audiences by playing several horns at once, sometimes on his back! "Roland Kirk is my idol. Of all the people in music, I model my schtick after him. He really did outrageous things, and I want to follow a similar path." After a couple national tours and two records on Warner Bros. with TJ Kirk (in addition to Charlie Hunter Trio gigs) the group disbanded in early 1997, to the dismay of their fans, to follow their own personal musical careers.
Always striving for something new, Charlie had the urge to make some changes to the Charlie Hunter Trio to allow for more musical growth. "I had done the trio thing long enough. I needed to take the next step. I either wanted to add a trumpet or an alto sax guy. When Calder came to town, I know he'd be perfect." Hunter met Calder Spanier, son of Canadian trumpet player, Herbie Spanier, in Montreal in the early eighties and hooked up with him again gigging on the streets in Europe. "He is so incredible, he's a natural. We played in various groups together in Europe. We did it up right. The poor, romantic artistes...the whole bit." Charlie was extremely happy with the addition of his buddy Spanier to the group. "He brings to this band a great sound, solos, and tunes as well as slapstick humor."
Ready, Set...Shango was recorded with this new lineup in 1996. What is a shango you may ask? "It's a dance," replies Charlie. "Well, not a real dance, but a mythical one. But it has no steps," Hunter says with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "It's a bogus cultural dance movement that's a figment of my imagination. It's done in an effort to hoodwink the record buying public into thinking there's actually a dance called the shango and that we're the sole purveyors of its music. It's also a ready-made social-cultural movement for the press to pick up on."
Within a couple of months of the recording of Shango, Dave Ellis decided to leave the group to pursue his solo career. Charlie brought in tenor player, Kenny Brooks who gained notoriety in the hip-hop jazz outfit, Alphabet Soup. Charlie had also played with Kenny years earlier at weekly Friday night gigs at the Up and Down Club in San Francisco. Charlie calls Brooks "the baddest tenor player in the Bay Area. You look up the word tenor saxophone in the dictionary and there's a picture of Kenny Brooks."
Brooks caught on quick, and now, the band had yet another new sound happening. The Quartet was approached by Blue Note who requested them to be a part of their Cover Series project for their next album, asking them to cover an entire classic album by another artist of their choice. Hunter agreed and though it was a grueling decision , he narrowed it down to three records; Smiley Smile by the Beach Boys, Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, and Natty Dread by Bob Marley. The band settled on Natty Dread. They worked out arrangements for the tunes, and started playing some of those arrangements on the road before returning back home to fine-tune the songs at a series of gigs at the Elbo Room. The Quartet then went into the studio to record the Bob Marley classic. "We recorded most of the tunes on first or second take so it feels like a live album."
During another weekly stint at the Elbo Room, the Quartet became a Quintet with the addition of a young Bay Area trumpet player named Chuck MacKinnon. While he played during this 3 month run with the band, finances prevented MacKinnon from joining the Quartet on the road, which they set out for after the local gigs. This tour sent them internationally to places such as Holland as well as New York where Charlie made his first national television appearance on the Conan O'Brien show. On this tour, the Quartet would sometimes pull out the whole Marley album from beginning to end to the delight of the audience. "People love it. They can't believe we pull it off. That's cool because we had fun doing the project."
Feeling like it was, yet again, time for a change, Hunter started thinking about a new sound. "I not only wanted to play in a more percussive setting this time out, but I also wanted to dig into new realms of tonality and timbre. Don't get me wrong, I love the horns, but I'd been doing that for so long that I wanted to go after something different. Above all I wanted to make a groove album which meant coming up with a strong rhythm section." Keeping Scott Amendola on drums, he added Scott Amendola and John Santos on percussion. Santos leads his own band, The Machete Ensemble, and also lectures nationally on Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban music.
To round out his new lineup, Charlie felt vibes were in order. "I had been listening to a lot of vibe players lately...I was excited by the fresh tonal possibilities as well as the versatility of the instrument and how it would blend in with the rest of the rhythm section." Blue Note recommended a vibe player named Stefon Harris who, even though being a young guy, had already performed with the likes of Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, Steve Turre, John Scofield, and Cyrus Chestnut, to name a few. "The people at Blue Note had been hipping me to him. They sent me a tape of his music and Stefon was killing. I knew I had to get his sound and intensity of playing. He was so great to work with. Stefon's such an open-minded and cool dude. Plus, he's got a great attitude. He gives 100% to the music."
To avoid the confusion of calling this band the Charlie Hunter Quartet and to emphasize the change in the sound of his new lineup, Charlie came up with the name Pound for Pound. "Catchy, isn't it? I just like how it sounds. I got the idea watching the boxer Roy Jones Jr. being interviewed on a talk show. He was saying that as a middleweight or light heavyweight boxer, he didn't make a whole lot of money, but pound for pound he claimed he was the best fighter in the land."
Stefon came out from New York to perform a few Bay Area gigs before settling into the studio to record Return of the Candyman, Hunter's fifth release.
Feeling the need for a change of scenery, accompanied by the desire to grow musically and have more opportunities to play with a variety of musicians, Hunter relocated to Brooklyn, New York in late 1997. "Here, my career can go so much farther, and I play with so many more people. I'm more inspired, and I can become a better player...You know, you just walk down the street and run into someone and then the next thing you know, you've got a gig-or a recording gig. In the Bay Area, you can walk all day and all night and never get anything."
Moving to Brooklyn made it hard for his Bay Area band mates, Santos and Amendola, to continue to play with Hunter, and since Stefon Harris was snatched up by Wynton Marsalis and Joe Henderson for their touring bands, Hunter recruited two New York musicians to round out Pound for Pound; Monte Croft on the vibes, and Willard Dyson taking Amendola's place on the drums.
On December 4th, 1997, Charlie's old friend and band mate, Calder Spanier, was tragically killed in a car accident on the Bay Bridge coming home from a gig. He was 31 years old. This was a tremendous loss to Charlie and others who knew him personally as well as to the music world. "He was a person who was so well-liked and had such a gentle spirit," says producer Lee Townsend to describe Calder's personality. Scott Amendola comments on Calder's musical power. "We would approach [live shows] like power jazz. We played at the Knitting Factory and it was this ball of energy. When we were done, it was like being high. Calder could drive the band to that." Hunter returned to his old home to perform a benefit concert for Calder's wife and unborn child at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Here he was reunited with old band mates Dave Ellis, Kenny Brooks, Scott Amendola, John Santos, and Chuck MacKinnon.
In 1999, after heavy touring of the U.S. and Europe, Charlie took another adventurous turn in wanting to record his next album accompanied only by one other musician. "I was excited by the prospect of working in a duo setting," says Hunter. "It's scary and challenging at the same time. Its like flying a helicopter. You have to be on at every moment. Every limb is doing something. There's no rest and no time to recoup your energy. After one hour you're totally expended."
Hunter, who had been used to playing in a duo setting with Scott Amendola at gigs around northern California, chose New Yorker Leon Parker to record with him for his fifth release on Blue Note. Leon Parker was the drummer in the Jacky Terrasson's trio as well as having three albums out under his own name, two being on Columbia Records. "I was a big fan of Leon's music. I thought he'd be the perfect person to work with on a duo album."
It was fate when Hunter bumped into Parker in Brooklyn, New York. "I ran into Leon on the street one day. We talked for quite a while about music in general and then what I had in mind. He wasn't very familiar with my albums, which was a good thing because we developed a style of playing together that wasn't built on preconceived notions." Charlie aptly titles the album Duo, and is convinced he made the right choice in using Leon Parker for this release. "Oh, man, Leon is a genius. Hooking up with him made my playing so much better. He's so honest in his drumming and he brings 150 percent to the music. His timing is perfect, and he has great taste. He plays all the right things. It was an inspiration to play with him." So inspiring that the recording session prompted the two to tour together in the U.S. and Europe.
Relocating to New York from the San Francisco Bay Area has proven to have been the right move for Hunter. "Just meeting and then getting to play with someone like Leon is why I came here," he says. "I'm being constantly inspired by people, which sets off a chain of events for more exploration. It's been one constant chain reaction since I moved here."
Another person who inspired Charlie was Adam Cruz who took over the drumming duties for Charlie's duo on the road and toured most of 1999 with Charlie. Charlie was introduced to Adam through Leon. What is not widely known is that Cruz was a long time roommate of Leon Parker. "Adam and Leon not only roomed together," Charlie explains, "but they have been major influences on each other's development. They are very different, but alike in their fearless approach to further the music."
Hunter is constantly touring and trying to grow musically, and spiritually. "I mean I don't want to get all hippy-dippy, but the goal is to reach the spiritual center of whatever music you're searching for. In that search, for me, it's real important to bring in other people and to have it be a real honest scene in which the audience is also part of the music. I know it's a good show depending on how the crowd is getting into the music. I can feel it when they get the groove, and we play off that." But Charlie is also playing music for himself. "I feel a real urgency in life and that's reflected in my music. It's my only creative outlet. It's the only avenue I have to scream about my life and what's happening in other people's world. It's my fail-safe antidote to the world."
It is a mission for Hunter to spread his music, but it is also a mission for him to turn others onto music of the past who might not be exposed to it anywhere else. "For some kids, this is their first exposure to jazz. They see how cool the music is and become intrigued enough to want to check out records by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. If our mission succeeds, hopefully we'll have helped to turn a generation of people onto a much more spiritually and soulfully executed music than what gets played on MTV," says an optimistic Hunter. "It's culturally the duty of the younger generation to help the music evolve. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't."