I first heard about Charlie Hunter in a Guitar Player magazine article as someone who will “change jazz guitar”. I tend to view such statements with a fair degree of cynicism but when I saw that he was playing in a free concert that was part of the JVC Jazz Festival, I figured it was worth checking out. So yeah, the magazine was right, he changed jazz guitar, at least for me. This was 1995, he had just released his first album for Blue Note records, “Bing. Bing, Bing, Bing”. First off, he was playing the guitar part and the bass part simultaneously. Charlie wasn’t the first person to play jazz guitar in a contrapuntal finger-style manner but the practitioners of this style (Joe Pass, Tuck Andress to name a couple) usually employed this technique in a solo guitar format. Here, it was being done in a group format. And not only was he playing basslines that actually sounded like a bass, he was playing fluent solo lines at the same time. Before this, I had never heard a guitar played with that degree of separation between the solo lines and the accompaniment.
Technical Note: At that time, Charlie Hunter was playing a custom 8 string guitar with the bottom three strings are tuned E, A, D, like the lower three strings on a bass and the top five are tuned A, D, G, B and E, as on guitar. The signals of the bass string group and guitar string group were sent to separate amps, allowing for the sound of each string group to be processed differently. This is one factor in explaining the distinction you hear between the bass part vs. the guitar part. Of course, the other (big!) factor is his amazing technique.
The thing that impressed me even more was the sound of the group. It brought to mind a very hip, modern take on the classic soul jazz organ trio with Charlie Hunter’s 8 string guitar taking the place of the Hammond B3 organ (this made sense since I subsequently read in interviews that Charlie was heavily influenced by organ players like Larry Young, the similarity to the organ being made even more pronounced when he would use a Leslie organ speaker simulator pedal). These were great tunes that grooved in a loose natural manner, vert different from the stilted airless feel of “smooth jazz”. Hunter’s songs were funky but not in a hokey way. They also had great melodic appeal. They were singable but not insipid. I also dug how the sax was integrated into the group sound. During Charlie’s solo, the sax would play lines that would reinforce the harmony. It’s a simple bit of small scale orchestration that I think makes a big impact on the music.
Charlie Hunter trio – Thursday the 12th
This third clip showcases another great facet of Charlie Hunter: his great choice of covers. Here he is doing a version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”. There has always been a tradition of using popular songs as jazz vehicles. That’s how songs like “All The Tings You Are” or “Night And Day” became jazz standards. But I had never heard a jazz take on an alternative rock song before this and it didn’t sound contrived. It was cool. Dig the recasting of the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8. Also the way he takes a riff very reminiscent of the intro of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and incorporates it into main vamp section.
Charlie Hunter trio – “Come As You Are”
Since that time, Charlie Hunter has released more that 20 albums, in formats ranging from solo guitar to quintets. It seems every couple of records he has to change things up. Lately, he has been playing in either guitar/drum duos or solo (as I saw him this past week). Does he sound as awesome playing solo as he did in the groups you heard above. I think so. Here are two clips of him in a solo guitar format as Exhibit A and Exhibit B.
Charlie Hunter (solo guitar) – Oakland
Charlie Hunter (solo guitar) – Recess
If you are a “guitar nerd” (or you’re interested in great music), you owe it to yourself to check him out.