Don’t call it jazz. If you’re a purist —a stickler for the clear, fluid, organ-like jazz tone championed by guitar greats Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery, among myriad others — don’t call Charlie Hunter’s latest stylings “jazz.” He doesn’t care.
Responding to a quote from the Dec. 2005 issue of GuitarOne magazine in which John Scofield nixes the idea that distortion and blues tones can be used in jazz music, Hunter simply says, “I don’t care. Don’t call what I play jazz, then.”
Noted for his wizardry on his custom-made eight-string guitar (yes that’s right, eight strings — five guitar and three bass), Hunter repudiates jazz tradition on his latest release, Copperopolis, which teems with dirty, blues-infused … well … jazz licks rounded out by Wurlitzer keyboards, funky woodwinds, and drums. As groove-heavy as much of Hunter’s previous material, this album is rich with complex melodies and harmonics.
“I spent a long time on linear jazz,” says Hunter, whose first major-label release was with Blue Note Records back in 1994. “But right now, I’m reinvigorated in the idea of the vocabulary of the electric guitar, which has an awesome, rich history. I’m re-investigating my roots as an electric guitar player, using improvisation sonically, rhythmically, and harmonically — not just linearly.”
Hunter’s soloing is also noticeably more mature on this album as he makes wise use of space and deliberate, careful note placement, rather than high-speed showboating.
“In our society, the guitar is a real fetishized instrument … if you do stuff that’s real obvious and adolescent, people get really excited,” Hunter muses. “There comes a point where that’s embarrassing, like wearing age-inappropriate clothing. When I use space, I leave room for other people to contribute, and then I have more space to contribute. It doesn’t wind up being a monochromatic blister of adolescent notage.”
Hunter’s departure from the more traditional jazz isn’t necessarily a venture into blues or rock ‘n’ roll as much as it is a transcendence into a musical realm uninhibited by bothersome borders. He doesn’t play by the rules anymore, and, in fact, he simply denies that rules exist, saying that rules are in place only because people believe in them.
“Rules are fine when you are learning, but I’m not trying to chase that rabbit anymore,” Hunter says. “‘Is this right? Is this within the tradition?’ That’s just not relevant for my own personal reality. I can’t worry about what sold albums 50 years ago. This is 2006; people don’t even buy CDs anymore.”
In shedding musical constraints for what he calls his “search for the spiritual core of music,” Hunter has even departed from his longtime partnership with John Ellis (woodwinds, Wurlitzer) and drummer Derrick Phillips (with whom he recorded Copperopolis) in favor of a new trio, which includes Erik Deutsch on keyboards and Simon Lott on drums.
Throughout this career, Hunter has played solo, with bands of various sizes, and has partnered with dozens of musical personalities from Leon Parker to John Mayer. It is with his trio, however, that the guitarist feels the most comfortable. “Communication between the musicians is easier than with a larger band,” Hunter says of the intimacy of a trio. “It’s easy to move around quickly and the sound is big enough.”
For listeners, the trio is the ultimate place to appreciate Hunter’s impressive comping as well as gawk at his soloing. Still, whatever the incarnation of his music or his band, he is bound to impress as he continues to bring jazz music to a younger audience by reaching beyond the perimeters of tradition. (Just don’t tell him we called it “jazz”). Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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