Charlie Hunter has certainly proved he’s his own man during the course of a career that’s found him working as parts of solos, duos, quartets, quintets and larger ensembles both as frontman/bandleader and collaborative participant. He is comfortable with himself to the extent his self-description as a ’boutique’ artist sounds both pragmatic and proud.
Which is perfectly appropriate since Hunter’s personality is colorful enough to allow him to remain visible whether he’s part of Bobby Previte’s Coalition of the Willing or Garage a Trois. There’s certainly no mistaking who’s setting the pace and the tone when you see Hunter live with his own group: the pleasure he radiates in observing and interacting with his bandmates (no matter how many of them!) is exceeded only by his delight in the sounds he makes himself.
The Bay Area native is even more pithy in conversation than in using his own seven-string guitar. But then, Charlie Hunter has carved a niche for himself in modern jazz largely by making his own statements in his own style, avoiding compromise and thereby reducing, or as in the following conversation with Doug Collette, wholly avoiding the possibility of misinterpretation. As with his carefully-conceived new recording, (Gentlemen I Regret to Inform you You will Not Be Getting Paid, out January 12th on the independent label Spire Artist Media), he knows what he wants to say and has a purposeful means by which to say it. That Charlie Hunter talks with economy and brevity is simply a natural extension of the way he plays music.
I’ve seen you in the past in duo, trio and quintet formats, so I wanted to talk about how you decided to enlarge your scope of music and work with a bigger band with horns.
It’s not actually a band actually because I can’t afford to have it out on the road because it’s too expensive. I’m really into ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ so I wanted to make a record that was recession-ready: where all the songs I could take out as a duo with Erik (Kalb, drummer with Hunter in recent years including new album), as a trio and, if I somehow manage to hook up a good situation, with two trombones and trumpet, drums and myself. It had to be modular.
It’s fascinating that you say that because as I was listening, all the parts were perfectly clear, and it sounded great with the horns, but it sounded as if you could take it apart and reassemble it again.
No doubt!… and I have fun doing it all. With the quintet you have this big powerful kind of sound. With the duo you have the ability to move through things really quickly, like you can take quick little moves in any direction you want. And with the trio you get the best of both worlds.
How do you decide in what format you’re going to tour?
It’s all about the money and what’s affordable.
How did you choose the horn players that appear on the recording: did you go them or did they come to you?
I went to them but they’re guys I’ve had relationships with over the years. I really wanted to make a record that was a horn record, but it wasn’t like the horns would be the main focus. I also didn’t want to have reeds, like a saxophone sound, because I wanted to have a more punchy kind of sound and really deal with the sound of the guitar, rather than a more saxophonic jazzier sound. I wanted that kind of sophistication but I didn’t want to be saddled with playing in that kind of vein. The whole idea was based on the horn section and it all comes down to improvising vertically instead of a linear way: instead of one guy out in front playing a narrative line on top of the rhythm section, it’s more of a group effort weaving the narrative line as an ensemble.
That’s what I heard as I got further into listening to it. It had this great sensation of something like a ballet dance between you and the drummer and the horns where you’re all bobbing and weaving, pirouetting around each other. I’d love to be able to watch this kind of thing being done live.
I’d love to do that, but it’s just so expensive paying all the guys, getting a hotel, travel—it’s a lot of money.
I wanted to ask you about the financial aspect of having a big band especially in these recessionary times. It must be kind of frustrating that you can’t go just anywhere you want with it because everybody involved is a working musician. I
It’s just hard, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I don’t have a following that’s big enough. I do have a dedicated following though and as a boutique kind of guy I gotta do what I can to make it work. It is just too expensive to take these high-calibre guys out on the road.
I wanted to ask a couple things about the recording of the album because it sounded very fresh and alive. I suspect it didn’t take a whole lot of time to record the tracks, in total or one by one for that matter. Did it fall right together for you?
It took two days and most of the tracks were second takes. We recorded directly to tape, no mixing , no digital anything. Dave McNair, who’s a great engineer, did all the mixing on the fly in there as we were playing. Also it’s mono, which is something I’ve always wanted to do; I think I’ll make a bunch more records like that because it’s just very satisfying rhythmically to hear that big fat sound in mono.
I’ll bet. I was listening on a laptop to a download so I wasn’t able to really crank it up and rattle the walls.
It will definitely rattle the walls when you get the CD! (laughs)
Who came up with the arrangements for the horns? The guys playing the horns or did you do it?
I did it all with the exception of that tune “Antoine,” where I gave the horns that rhythmic figure and they improvised everything else.
Given how efficiently you worked you must’ve been pleased quite early on with how quickly you got into it.
We knew it was all good. We better know what we’re doing by now!
What gave you the idea to do the spontaneous recording and mixing in mono?
Uhhh..money! It’s the only way I can afford to record these days and I wanted to make the best sounding record I could.It turns out I prefer this method and again it’s like necessity is the mother of invention, as I get back to the future in a way by recording in a way that might’ve been done back in the fifties. We play live music. We don’t do overdubs. Everything we do is live so why bother with all the other fancy kinds of things?
Was the material all written and prepared to record when you guys went into the studio or was a lot of it done impromptu?
It was all ready to go. There’s the heads on everything for the sake of ‘arrangements,’ but then there’s like a lot of improvisation around that.
When did you go from playing the eight string guitar to the seven string and why did that change occur?
It must’ve been like four or five years ago and the reason was why is just that–the longer I do this, the more I realize, it is its own thing and I shouldn’t worry about the little things—I realized the upper guitar string was getting in the way. It wasn’t helpful and I didn’t want to worry about my open-string chord voicings. That’s not what this thing (the guitar) does, it’s like a machine for rhythmic propulsion, counterpoint and fun lines. All the harmony happens between the bass and two-note chords, three note chords max. Or like one-note parts. It’s not that big of a deal: it’s kind of like a drummer removing one of the tom-toms. It makes my life a lot easier and, ironically, it’s enable me to play more music now because I don’t have to worry about that string getting in the way.
You’re simplifying your life with every passing year! (laughs)
Yeah…and the music’s better.
The last couple times I’ve seen you, I’ve been hearing more of a blues feeling when you play the guitar to solo. Is that something conscious on your part?
It’s not conscious, it’s just the music I grew up on and, it’s also the kind of music the guitar really lends itself to. You don’t have to fight it..
No definitely …it sounds more like you’re channeling it rather than have to coax it out
Hopefully as an artist and a musician, you’re just evolving and what you’re hearing…that’s just another step along the way in the whole process.
I was disappointed to find you were not be part of the latest Garage a Trois project. I wondered how that happened and if there were a conflict or series of conflicts…
I hate those guys! (laughs).
I didn’t want to come right out and ask that?!?!(laughs)
No, those are my boys. We’re all playing here in Seattle tonight and we had a rendezvous at a friend’s house and we had a nice hang. I love those guys, but I can only do a certain thing for a period of time and when I feel like, for me, it’s in its downward trajectory, it’s time for me to go on to something else. There came a point within the band when they were really not happy unless you were bashing your brains out every night, every song and that robs you of your dynamic range
Their new CD (Power Patriot) is in your face..
That’s what they’re going for and… more power to them.