Q+A with Charlie Hunter


Charlie Hunter

If you haven't heard Charlie Hunter, you may be missing the second coming of jazz. Blue Note and Impulse, fortunately, are mostly resting on their laurels. Unfortunately, when they're not, we get more Easy Listening Vanilla Knobzak from whichever Brecker or Marsalis happens to be hanging around the lobby. Jazz used to have stones the size of Chet Baker's heroine habit and enough mojo to make you cough just looking at the album covers. Charlie may be a little short on the grit side, but what he does bring to the table is real jazz, infused with enough funk to make the entire Warner Brothers catalog wet their tiny pants. So it's got a little flute in it. Nobody's perfect. So look to "Friends Seen and Unseen" on ropeadope records for your jazz needs, and look below for lawrence.com's talk with Charlie Hunter about John Brown, Democrats, and machete killing.

Well, it's already 9 a.m. here, so it's a great time to do an interview.

Oh, where are you?

Lawrence, Kansas.

Oh, cool. Jayhawks!


John Brown!

I was gonna ask you about John Brown. You're wrecking this interview already.

[laughing] Quantrill!

Past Event

Jean Carnahan book signing

  • Saturday, May 1, 2004, 1 p.m.
  • Unity Temple, 707 W. 47th, Kansas City, MO
  • All ages


It's interesting that you mention Jayhawks and John Brown. We had the "Jayhawks on Parade" for a while here, where a gaggle of misguided hacks decorated enormous fiberglass Jayhawks, and the newspaper had one made to look like John Brown. It's in the lobby now.


It is really cool, I've gotta say. And I'm not as big a fan of the Jayhawk as I am John Brown, but this artist did them both justice.

Yeah, John Brown's a very interesting history. Very interesting stuff went on in Lawrence.

You're a big fan of "Cloudsplitter," by Russell Banks.

Oh, yeah. God, I love that book.

This Side Charlie HunterMp3 highlights from a 6 night engagement (11 sold-out shows) at Yoshi's in Oakland, California from December 2000.

That's more of a fictionalized account of John Brown?

It's a fictionalized account from one of his surviving sons. And it's from when the surviving son is in his late 70s or early 80s or something. He's a very old man at that point. But it's very well written; it really gets into the character and the time. Russell Banks has a knack for that, I think. He really got into the character of Bone, too [in "Rule of the Bone," also by Banks]

One writer made some comparisons between you and Bone.

Oh, that's funny.

So I was wondering about any pot-related, Rastafarian killing sprees in your past.

No, I haven't done that yet. I hope not to have to be in that situation ever.

Well, you're young yet. It could still happen.

Oh boy, I hope not. One of my goals is to avoid that kind of thing if at all possible.

Avoid machete killing.

Exactly. Or any kind of killing.

Well, good for you. Where are you living these days?

In Jersey.

How long have you been in New Jersey?

Oh, I've been here almost two years, but I've been on the East Coast for about seven now.

Oh, really. I thought for some reason you were still living in Berkeley.

Oh my God, no. It's been years since I've done that. I go and hang out there about once a year for a week or two, that's about it.

And you were in New York City for a while?


So, why eight strings? Why not ten? Why not three? Why not six?

Exactly. Great question. Why not three? That's an even better question than "Why not six?" I think that's the thing about the guitar. It's one of those do-it-yourself instruments. It's kind of like the world's instrument. Nearly every culture has their version of the guitar. Some of them have three strings -- like I think the balalaika might have three strings. Then of course the Cuban Tres has three sets of two strings, but it's really a three-stringed instrument when you deal with the tonality of it. And then there's the six-string guitar, and that can be tuned a variety of different ways ...

My idea of the eight-string thing was really like, "How can I get an instrument that could give me the range of the bass and the guitar, but also still be playable. [laughs] 'Cause ten strings is too much for me. So I just settled on the eight-string, and it just kind of came out of being a six-string player that -- I'd played a little drum set and some bass as well, so I kind of had an idea about trying to create an instrument that could put me in a situation where I could do all of those things.

And really, ultimately, the idea is to try to create my own vocabulary on the instrument. From the very beginning I tried to see how many parts I could do together ... But then, as I got a little more technique underneath my hands, it became more of an issue of evolving my own style and trying to evolve the instrument as something unique rather than just trying to be a six-string jazz guitar player or bass player; try to take elements from those things and ultimately create my own sound with that. And I'm slowly getting there. I'm still a ways away from really making my statement on the instrument. But it's a work in progress.

How is the ropeadope records experience compared to Blue Note?

Oh, it's great. I mean, Blue Note, for when I was young, I was lucky to be in that situation, but it's just a very corporate label, and I don't really need to be involved in a corporation, and I don't enjoy the culture, and I'm not really expecting to get my music in Wal-Mart any time soon, so it's totally unnecessary for me to be in a situation I don't want to be in. ropeadope is great. It's one guy -- literally -- one guy doing everything. It's totally fine. Mellow. I just feel a lot more freedom to play and explore rather than worrying about trying to make records that work for [satisfying] the corporate reality.

And even at it's most corporate, jazz is still underground compared to its pop brethren like Godsmack and Nickelback.

I've never even heard of any of those bands.

Good for you.

I reached a tipping point in my life where I was just -- it was just -- cotton candy -- American popular culture -- I was a big sports fan and I watched my sitcoms and all of that, and there just came a point in my life where it was just like eating pure cotton candy, and I just realized that I just can't do this anymore. The more you educate yourself as to the corporate people that are behind all of these things, the less able I am to deal with it, and one minute of network television is enough to make me wanna throw up because it's so unnatural.

And when you get away -- it's like quitting smoking cigarettes. When you're trying to quit it's the hardest thing in the world, but when you finally quit you're like, "I can't believe I ever did anything like that." So it's just the whole -- I don't want to be dogmatic about it, because I was raised in this culture, of kind of the junk food mentality. It's like that McDonald's mentality is in the television, it's in, not just the food we eat, it's in the music we wanna hear, in the TV we wanna watch, all the movies we wanna see, and the sports. I used to be into sports. I can't even think about watching a basketball game. One minute listening to the inane banter of the people, and seeing all of these kids, especially the college game, where these kids are basically indentured servants to these universities that they're making millions and millions for through endorsements, and just the hypocrisy of the alumni and all these people who basically are pimping out these kids and getting all high and mighty -- these kids should be paid. [laughs] I don't know, I'm just going on a ramble. It just gets back to the whole thing -- I just feel like there just came a point in my life where I was like, "I just don't need to be a part of this anymore, and I can no longer deal with it." I'm just happily on the outskirts of whatever it is.

So what do you do to occupy your time now that you're a square?

I guess I'm just gettin' old, man. I read. I watch a lot of DVDs. [laughing] Historical documentaries. I guess I'm just turning into a dry, boring old guy. [laughs]

Wow. And you've got a couple kids.

Yeah. Basically I'm just a dad. I just have to take care of my kids when I'm not on the road, and that's pretty much what I get involved in.

What are you reading now?

I'm reading a few things. I'm reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton that just came out. I'm reading the Robert Fagles translation of "The Iliad." And I'm reading " Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco.

Have you read "The Name of the Rose?"

Yeah. God, that's a great book.

It's amazing. It's like packing in a liberal arts degree reading one of his books. He packs in art history, political science, comp, fiction...

Exactly. He can definitely beat your ass with some erudition sometimes.

Tell me about the state of jazz today. Do you think it's pretty healthy?

Well, the state of music is always healthy. ... Music is great. It's music's relationship to whatever -- in our case it's jazz's relationship to the capitalist culture within which we live, and at the moment that's pretty terrible. But music itself is great. There's just a lot people who are pursuing their concepts and their dreams at any cost, and that's a good thing I think. But I think it's hard because, like you said, even the most corporate stuff in "jazz" is still underground. And it that's the case, you can only imagine the people who are my age and younger who no longer have any corporate outlet for their music and they have to do it all by themselves. There's no -- what I had, 10, 15 years ago, to be able to get on a label and get my music out into all of the big record chains and everything, and get that kind of leg up for starting a career. That's not really available to anybody anymore, so in that way it'll be a little more difficult.

But then in another way, I think there's not gonna be that kind of tacit corporate culture looming over people's artistic decisions. And that's going to allow people to be much more -- I don't want to use the word underground -- much more dynamic in the way that they approach making their music, and much more connected to the people they're playing their music for. And I think that's ultimately good in the long run, to completely, as much as possible, eliminate the kind of corporate middle man thing. If you think about the music industry itself, it's probably one of the only situations in nature where the parasite is 10 or 20 times larger than the host. And I think that can work if you're selling your records at Wal-Mart and you're selling 10 million records, but for people that are in my case, and people who are -- I mean, I'm successful and I hardly sell any records. Can you imagine what it's like for people who are really trying to do it? It's just really hard at the moment, but I think that necessity is the mother of invention, and the positive side of that is that we won't really have to worry about pleasing anyone but ourselves and our audience, and I see that happening a lot, and I think that ultimately would be a great thing.

I had forgotten that you played bass for "Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy" --

Yeah, yeah.

-- which still really holds up for me.


And I'd forgotten that you were involved in that, and it kind of cracked my up.

[laughing] It cracks me up, too.

And you and Michael Franti certainly took different directions from there.

Well, it was never my project. It was Michael's thing always. He just hired me. And we were friends. We just hung out a lot, and so I just kind of fell into that scene. But Michael's great, and he's continued to really pursue his thing. He's one of the smartest people I know, so it's great to see him out there having an audience to play for, and not being marginalized by the kind of corporate culture which, in the kind of music that he's doing, is much easier to have happen to them than with what I'm doing.

You've been in Lawrence a few times in a pretty short span.

I was there with a duo with Adam Cruz, and then I was there with Garage a Trois. And now I'm gonna come with my trio.

John Ellis and Derrek Phillips?

With John and Derrek, yeah.

What keeps bringing you back to Lawrence?

Well, when you're out on the road, you're out on the road. And basically, Lawrence has got some hip people, and if they're gonna come out and see me, then I'm gonna go play there.

And you've had good experiences here?

Oh, yeah. Lawrence is great. Yeah, I like Lawrence. Lawrence is right on. It's all good.

And we've got the rich history that you seem to enjoy.

Yeah, totally. Totally.

We almost had a Quantrill High School.

Get out of here.

We've got a Dole Library. We love namin' stuff after shitheads.

Eight years ago Bob Dole was a shithead. Now he's a moderate. Now he's a moderate with integrity. How things have sunk. I'm gonna vote for a Democrat for the first time in my life, for President. I never ever thought that was gonna happen. ... Dude, I've never voted for either one of those parties. I can't believe that things have sunk so low that I have to vote for a f¢cking Democrat. It's embarrassing. All my Berkeley sensibilities thrown out the window. Things must be bad.

How did you manage to get raised in Berkeley and not turn out to be a Deadhead?

It's funny. My mom was of the generation that probably would have been interested in that, and she disliked that music intensely. She thought that it was just kind of lame, because what she was into was the music that those guys were trying to cop. She was really into all the old country blues players and country stuff, so that was around the house. So basically, for the same reason I never really got into Eric Clapton or any of that kind of stuff is because I had all -- the record collection was this kind of thing filled with Robert Johnson and B.B. King and Son House and Joseph Spence and Taj Mahal and all the great stuff -- Albert King -- I didn't need that music, 'cause I had all of the original stuff. I didn't feel like they really had anything to offer beyond that kind of not doing the stuff that I had grown up with very well.

Maybe you just weren't groovy enough.

I probably wasn't, and also I wasn't really culturally in that kind of a thing. I kind of grew up as a hippie, but it wasn't that kind of a hippie.

A rich, entitled hippie?

No, it was not. It was the other side of the hippie tracks. The kind of welfare, blood-selling hippie side of the tracks. ... The only thing I remember about the Grateful Dead was they played a concert one time in Berkeley, and the only thing I remember was everyone in the junior high school saying, "Yeah, that band is coming. Now we can go buy weed at the concert." [laughs]

Is this a completely new trio for you?

They were both in the quintet. And John [Ellis] has actually been with me for going on four years now ...

And you're calling the new record, "Friends Seen and Unseen," your best record ever, according to ropeadope records.

It's so funny that they said that. I said this is definitely my best, I think, guitar record I've ever made. That's what I have to clarify. I have to tell him not to keep putting that down. [laughing] That's so embarrassing, and things just don't work that way. This music there's really not any best, so to speak.

There's nothing wrong with being proud of the record, though.

I just think that up to this point, whatever you're playing is always an evolution, and I just think that, for me, I just feel like it's a good example of where my guitar playing is at right now more than anything else. And Andy's gotta sell records, he's gotta do what he's gotta do.

You're saying this is your best guitar record yet, and your name is on the cover of the record, but throughout your career you seem to let the other guys on your records really showcase their skills.

Oh yeah.

It's not like picking up a Stanley Jordan record or something, where it was all about Stanley Jordan, and there happen to be some anonymous guys in the far background.

Well, thank you. That's what I'm trying to do. Ultimately you can make the music as two-dimensional as you want to. If you just want to make a record that's extremely surface-driven, and there's a lot of nifty little playing on it, then that's fine. But to me, I want to try to make a record, and have a group, that is a 360-degree musical experience where everybody is constantly contributing. You're trying to create a canvas, really, and it's really a democratic process, with me as kind of the leader of it, but it still is a situation where everyone needs to be contributing all the time, mostly improvised music, and I'm not hiring these guys to chop wood. [laughs] I'm hiring them for their ability to get in there and put on the gloves and slug it out.

You put a lot of genres into your jazz, but it's always jazz. Do you have any desire to do straight funk or death metal or anything?

[laughs] Please no. What I try to do is make acquaintances that turn into friendships -- musical partnerships -- and I just try to learn from the people I'm playing with, and hopefully I'm just trying to evolve my musicianship, my understanding of the entire music system. And the more people I play with and interact with, the better that gets. So I just try to take each situation for what it is, and if it's not really interesting and engaging to me, then I'll have to go on to the next situation. So I just take each thing as they come down the pike, but I don't really like to rock out for more than -- two or three minutes a night is about as much as I can handle.


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