Charlie Hunter Embraces Change

May 1, 2009

CHANGE HAS COME TO CHARLIE HUNTER. He’s got new gear, revamped mechanics, and a brave, fresh new sound. His recent material is funky, freaky, and features his most muscular, economical playing to date. Hunter says that he’s not only got a brand new bag for the time being—he’s done with the whole “organ on guitar” soul-jazz trip for good. “I can’t stand that sound any more,” he proclaims. “It started making me cringe a few years ago, and I decided it was time to move on.”

This is a giant step for a man who built his badass reputation by conquering hairy bass lines and heady post-bop melodies simultaneously on custom 8-string instruments that he dreamed up precisely to be able to capture the contrapuntal magic of great Hammond B3 players such as Larry Young and Jimmy Smith. Hunter is still a musical beast—he’s just changed his nature to reflect a more groove-forward mentality.

His past two records—Mistico [Concord] and Baboon Strength [Spire Artists Media]—are both trio affairs, but they bear little resemblance to the harmonically dense, swinging from the ceiling Charlie Hunter trios of yore. The horns are gone, replaced by Erik Deutsch’s gloriously cheesy keyboard sounds—think “96 Tears”—and Baboon Strength is built on ferocious pocket thumping by drummer Tony Mason (Jim Campilongo). Hunter plays a new 7-string guitar/ bass hybrid through a simplified signal chain to render gritty guitar tones laced with tremolo and reverb. The adventurous musical vibe ranges from mysterious to ethereal to downright silly. It sounds as if the longtime friend of GP—and former contributor as Jazz Guru—has fully checked any hipster attitude at the curb, and is simply enjoying himself.

What’s behind your recent renaissance?

Playing jazz is the best way to learn harmony, rhythm, and improvisation— but it’s just one vernacular to me. I spent so much time learning how to play in a linear style, and it all eventually started to sound like music school to me. I don’t like much jazz past 1960, and I realized that we were never going to be as good at playing it as the musicians were back then, or as connected to our time. I let go of all that information about playing over changes as a vehicle for lengthy solos. That doesn’t truly excite me anyway. I feel like I did it just to prove I could hit the standard benchmarks on a fancy guitar. Now I’m doing something more natural to the instrument itself, and that has facilitated a more musical flow.

The instrument that you created in order to play a particular way is now inspiring you to play differently?

You got it.

How does your current instrument compare to past instruments?

The Novax 8-string instruments I played for most of my career had three bass strings tuned E, A, D, and five guitar strings tuned A, D, G, B, E (low to high). But when playing contrapuntally, you spend an inordinate amount of time controlling the strings you are not playing, meaning fewer strings can be better. A couple of years ago—before recording Mistico—I realized that the high E string was unnecessary, so I removed it.

Jeff Traugott made the 7-string instrument I use currently, and like my previous instruments, it has the Novax Fanned-Fret system. The scale length is 25w" on the first string, and 29" on the seventh string, and the tuning is a minor third higher than before: G, C, F, C, F, Bb, D. The lowest note on the seventh string is equivalent to the third fret on the bottom of a 4-string bass, and there’s no high-E string, so the range is compacted to get just the bread and butter notes out of both the bass and the guitar.

Jason Lollar made a pair of four-pole humbuckers that capture the four guitar strings, and a pair of three-pole humbuckers for the three bass strings. There are two outputs— one for the guitar pickups, and the other for bass.

How has the new instrument influenced your playing?

Although this instrument comes from combining guitar and bass, it has a unique power to create melodic and harmonic beats. Building vertically from the groove up is more fun, and people like the music better.

Have you also changed amps recently?

Yes. I have a Headstrong Lil’ King, which is basically a 12-watt Fender Princeton clone with 6V6 tubes and a 12" speaker. And just today I got my Lil’ King-S, which has 25 watts of beefy 6L6 power. I’ll bring that to bigger rooms. I don’t need much more than 20 watts because my lowest guitar string is a C. I have to give credit to Jim Campilongo, who is my kind of guitar hero. I had always pooh-poohed Princetons as practice amps until I went to one of his gigs and heard the huge sound. I’m not going for that blocky jazz tone anymore, so the Lil’ King is working out well. For bass, I play through whatever backline amp is provided at the gig. I’d love to use an Ampeg SVT all the time, but it’s just too big to transport.

What pedals do you bring?

Nothing. I decided to be a man and go straight into the amp. I’ve realized that what I do is all about the beats, and the interplay between parts. Anything that gets in the way of that dance is a buzzkill. I even lost the volume pedal, which I thought was such an important part of my setup in the past. I’m disgusted with volume swells! I will make an exception and bring out my self-assembled BYOC Tremolo pedal because it interacts so well with the amp, especially when it’s overdriven. And I’ll bring a wah to a duo gig once in a while to add a different texture.

How have your mechanics evolved?

I’m playing more economically. For years, I strictly played bass lines with my thumb, and used my fingers on the guitar strings. I originally tried to play guitar lines using three fingers, which was silly because it always sounded like some guy limping. Then I started using two fingers. Now, I essentially use my middle finger to pluck guitar parts, and multitask with the index finger depending on where it’s most needed rhythmically. All of these decisions have to happen in a nanosecond, and require a lot of practice. Everything has to conform to the beat, even during ballads such as “A Song For Karen Carpenter” and “Fine Corinthian Leather.”

How about your fretting hand?

I’ve always had to do a finger ballet based on the path of least resistance, but I would cheat a lot [laughs]. I’d stay in one spot longer than I needed to in order to play what I thought was a cool line, but in reality was just some constipated jazz bulls***. Now I keep the flow going. You don’t have to play involved bass lines to get the point across. You can draw an outline using basic harmony, and the listener’s ears will fill in the gaps. I’m trying to find the freedom in that sound.

It seems as though you have.

Baboon Strength was a personal triumph for me because it’s about covert chops rather than overt chops. There’s some tricky stuff going on, but there is no “look at me” guitar playing. That’s fine in your 20s, but you should be embarrassed to play that way when you are in your 40s. I know I am.

How did you approach the songs on Baboon Strength?

I wrote them specifically for this band, with the utmost respect for Tony’s drum pockets, and space for Eric’s keyboard melodies. Keyboard melodies are very different from horn melodies stylistically, and in how they mix with the guitar. As a rule of thumb, harmonic density subtracts from danceablilty, and by that I mean the way the parts kind of dance together. Adding heavy harmonies is like adding weight to drag behind the groove. I tried to keep the harmony light so that the music could pop along.

Is there a particular way that you compose?

I compose on the guitar, but sometimes I have to get away from the instrument and play a keyboard. I’m just barely capable enough to figure out melodies, however, which is good because the lack of skill keeps me from wasting time noodling around. And I almost always write at home, because there’s not much time for creativity on the road. That said, “Welcome to Frankfurt” coalesced onstage one night when we played it with a disco beat and the audience flipped. They really seemed to get it with all four beats specifically marked out. We thought it was the funniest thing ever at first, and then we started enjoying playing it that way. Maybe the joke was on us.

The title track’s wild main vamp sounds like the “The Munsters’ Theme.” Have you been watching Nick at Night?

Well, I like old music with cheesy organs and doubled bass and guitar lines, so it comes from that.

How did the Baboon Strength sessions go down?

We played together in the same room at Trout Studio in Brooklyn. Tony used the house drums. I used my Lil’ King and the Ampeg B-15 bass amp that was on hand. Eric used the Yamaha combo organ that I had found for him at a junk store near my home in New Jersey. We isolated our amps as best we could, spent 20 minutes getting sounds, and pretty much recorded everything live to a two-inch 16-track tape machine in one day. We reviewed a few things the next day, played a few second takes, and dumped the tracks to Pro Tools for mixing. You should be able to do a record in a day or two if you’ve been on the road. I’ve been doing this trio with Erik in one shape or form for about two and a half years, but our last show together is coming up soon.

Why is the group disbanding?

I work with whatever band I have until it reaches its height, and then I kill it. What’s the point in continuing if it’s not going to get any better?

Are you still involved with Garaj a Trois, or the Groundtruther project with Bobby Previte?

Garaj a Trois is still active, but I stopped playing with them a couple of years ago. We put Groundtruther to bed at about the same time. I’m always moving around musically in order to stay excited about what I’m doing, and to keep the audience interested.

Have you planned the next step?

I plan to make a solo dance guitar record—one that actually makes you want to dance around. That’s the gauntlet I’ve thrown down for myself, so I’ve been trying to play as metronomically as possible. I try to hit the drum kit every day, playing the same beat at various tempos for about an hour in order to feel the metronomic foundation. I practice guitar the same way.

Will you be performing solo as well?

It’s very difficult to keep a solo guitar show interesting for more than a half hour. I’m going to be doing a lot of duo shows with drummers, and augmenting what we do with horns. I’m interested in vertical improvisation based on a strong rhythmic foundation. The concept is to treat tunes more like events, and less like jazz blow-athons. I’m through chasing that rabbit.

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