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The Simple Turned Complicated - Charlie Hunter Trio: Saturday, August 25, 5:30 p.m. PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 22 August 2007 02:47

Charlie HunterIf you casually watch the Charlie Hunter Trio on stage, something might nag at you. It sounds like there's a bassist, but ... there's no bassist. Just Hunter and his guitar, drummer Simon Lott, and keyboardist Erik Deutsch playing jazz fusion with the direct appeal of rock music.

Some other details might get under your skin. Hunter's hands don't move in quite the same way as a typical guitarist's, and if you look closely, you'll notice that his instrument has seven strings.

Yes, Hunter is this year's custom-guitar entry at River Roots Live (following guit-steel master Junior Brown the past two years). He started his guitar-and-bass experimentations almost two decades ago with a seven-stringed instrument meant to mimic a Hammond B3 organ, shifted to an eight-string guitar, and then moved to a different seven-stringed instrument.

"I've got almost the whole range of a bass and the whole range of a guitar in one instrument," Hunter said in a phone interview last week. "And it allows me to occupy a much larger space of the music. And it changes the dynamics that I have with the other musicians on stage, just because I'm occupying a larger part. It doesn't mean that I can play everything a bass player can play or everything a guitar player can play ... ."

But it's not merely a constraint, he said. "For everything I can't do because I don't have a bass player or because I don't have a guitar player, there are three or four more things I can do because I don't have a bass player and I don't have a guitar player," he said. "So on balance, I find that ... I'm able to do way, way, way more this way than I could the other way. And that's way more interesting to me. ...

the Charlie Hunter Trio "I think I'm always going to be experimenting [with the instrument], but I feel like I'm getting very, very close" to the guitar sound and range he's looking for.

This incarnation of the Charlie Hunter Trio replaced a tenor sax with keys, and the result is a much different band, Hunter said.

"Saxophone is really like the operatic tenor of the jazz world," he said. "The sound of tenor saxophone really defines the sound of the whole group. And it also in a lot of ways confines the sound of the group as well. You have to play to the tenor's strengths. You can't get incredibly loud guitar ... because the tenor will just be killed. Having keyboard gives you the right to those sounds, which means the guitar can sometimes be the one that's in front, the keyboard can be in front. ... It can be just a little more amorphous and adaptable kind of thing."

The result, on the lovely Mistico CD released last month, is a more rock-oriented instrumental fusion. Hunter said he wanted the record to emphasize "songwriting, but also improvisation and sonically trying to deal with the immediacy and pliability of the jazz-improvised mind with the throw-down, brawling sonic palette - the guitar turned up to 10 and the crazy Casiotone."

That's where Hunter is today, but he moves around a lot. He's released almost 20 albums in the past 15 years, and he isn't wed to any group size or particular lineup. He's been with his current trio for roughly a year.

"I want to do a group, because so much of it is based on improvisation, and that's based on the people who are playing in the band - from their personalities and their aesthetics," Hunter said. "And when you combine all of the different individuals, it creates a kind of group aesthetic and dynamic."

But he also wants to keep things fresh, and to mine new territory. He said he wants to "kill" an ensemble "before the unavoidable downturn begins. ... It's always better to realize when it's reached its full potential and then move on to the next thing."

Charlie Hunter As for what River Roots Live audiences can expect, Hunter said, "You never know." Is there a set list? "Perish the thought," he said with an audible sneer.

Hunter said that he was inspired to have a custom instrument built by listening to players who accompanied themselves on guitar. "I just took that idea and expanded on it," he said. He said he prefers the custom guitar to a standard guitarist-and-bassist arrangement because of the "ability to work the counterpoint. And when you have the low end, it allows you a lot more traction in that area."

Technically, Hunter said, playing his guitar is "pretty damned complicated. ... They [the fingers on any hand] kind of have to dance together. ... Both hands have to dance together.

"And that's just the start. And you have to get millions of those combinations under your fingers and under you brain before you're able to improvise your way through the music without looking like a bull in a china shop."

His goal, he said, is not to wow guitarists in the audience with technical wizardry but to "play more articulately, and not necessarily play very flashy stuff, but play simple stuff very, very articulately with really good time. ...

"It's amazing how you can break down the simplest thing to be really the most complex undertaking," he said with a laugh. "That's kind of what my instrument is good at."


To listen to the Reader interview with Charlie Hunter, visit (

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