Charlie Hunter’s Community Service
Charlie Hunter is sound checking with his band mates, John Ellis and Derrek Phillips at The Green Mill in Chicago while I watch from the bar. It is quickly apparent that this is more a rehearsal than a sound check, with Hunter describing meticulously to Ellis how he wants the saxophone riff to sound like during a particular section of a song.
Hunter is notorious for his rigorous practice schedule; he often spends three hours or more a day perfecting his technique and compositions on his eight string guitar. Hunter, who had recently returned from a two week tour in Europe, stopped in Chicago for a two night run at The Green Mill before heading back to New York to recharge before he hits the road with Garage A Trois on August 4th.
Road-weary and hungry (the interview took place during his allotted time to get dinner) Hunter spoke with me about his inspiration as a musician and his 8 string guitar.
HI: I read your bio, and one of the things that struck me is that you said that in high school you had a really rough time and you weren’t the greatest student. I was wondering if you would like to share any of the things you did in high school that were maybe a little crazy or that you regret?
CH: Oh man, yeah, I was just a crazy kid. But you know isn’t everybody at that age? We all had our own outlets but I was playing lots of gigs at night in blues bands and rockabilly bands so I think I probably did all the normal insane stuff that teenagers do. But I was also kind of a working musician at that point too so…
HI: So would you say you had a sense of responsibility even though you were just a teenager? Is there anything in your mind that you think to yourself, "Oh god I wish I hadn’t done that!"
CH: Well I got some tattoos. I have a Woody Woodpecker tattoo I got when I was 16, that’s one thing.
HI: How did you decide on Woody Woodpecker?
CH: I don’t know, I just decided to do it.
HI: Also in your bio you talk about a spiritual core of music and I was wondering if you could go into a little more detail as to what you mean by that and where that resides for you now.
CH: I mean I think it’s just about trying to see where you fit in, in the community and what we do with the musicians we play with and with the audience that you play for.
HI: Do you mean within the jazz community?
CH: No, your own community of musicians and the community of humanity at large. It’s always a constant path of trying to figure out who you are and musically defining yourself in the most natural way you can. And to try to just play and just be honest and that’s when you finally reach the center.
HI: So how is who you are reflected in your music?
CH: You just get something totally non-verbalized. I couldn’t explain it to you. You would have to just be a person listening and part of the audience. And then you would be part of what that was.
HI: So do you think that people that come to your shows have a good idea of who you are?
CH: I don’t know about that. I think it’s more just you personally find…cause the music thing is a constant, never ending path that you’re on you know? My goal is to always be honest about my influences that I come from musically and let it come out and let it happen and flow.
HI: What does your life teach you about playing jazz music and what does playing jazz music teach you about your life?
CH: I don’t think of it as jazz. As a guitar player I listen to so much music. Of course jazz is a great foundation to come from. But I think when you’re doing something that’s expressive and creative and improvised like a lot of the blues…you know where you come from and who you are is a huge part of the music that you play. All the music that you’ve listened to and digested and been interested in and really excited about and all the people that have taught you this and just so many milestones along the path that you’re going on and there will be more to come. It all somehow is exemplified when you’re playing.
HI: What about mentors. What people in your life, personal or professional have had the biggest impact?
CH: Joe Satriani was a great guitar teacher when I was a kid. But mentors?
It’s hard because I kind of did most everything myself. I was just that kind of person. But a lot of the people I met and who were really influential on me they all are people I’ve played with, worked with, in some ways they are all mentors. Because everyone is a teacher and everyone has knowledge that I don’t have and I really love being around people, especially in this music world because people are so proactive and so interesting and so into what they’re doing. It’s such an incredible experience that everyone has. And it’s always exciting to me so that’s always inspiring. It keeps me moving forward you know?
HI: Can you think of an example recently of someone who you played with that you were just really struck by what kind of impact they were making on the music you were creating?
CH: Oh yeah. Bobby Previte is someone I’ve been playing with a lot recently and he’s got this incredible creative thing going on and where he comes from and everything. That’s a real experience you know? Everyone has something you could get from them. It’s always exciting.
HI: Well I’m really interested in your instrument and I’m curious to know what you feel are the benefits of having one person play two parts and why does that outweigh the limitations?
CH: Well that’s a good question. But I don’t know that I think of it in terms of benefits or limitations. I just think of it as different. It’s just a different approach and it’s very difficult. Just physically. And sometimes I wonder why the hell am I doing this? But because of what it is it automatically puts me at a different perspective of the music than I normally would have. And it forces me into an area that I would not be able to be in with guitar. Just playing guitar or just playing bass. And because of that if I embrace, like you say the limitations – because the limitation is that I can’t do all of the things that just a guitar or just a bass could do – but they can’t do all of the things that I can do. So it has its own specific set of limitations and assets. But I don’t think it’s any better or any worse, I just think it’s different. And that’s what’s exciting to me – to put myself in a position that’s just a different sound and there’s so much possibility with it that hasn’t been tapped. And I’m sure that people that come after me can learn the instrument quickly, because I’ve done all the ground work.
HI: So you think this is a style that should be taught?
CH: I don’t know if it should be taught. It sure is hard as hell, but if anyone’s interested I think they could do what I do very quickly because I’ve done the groundwork. They could learn what I’ve done and then they could take it to their own space. And that would be exciting for me to hear.
HI: Some people might say maybe you just don’t like bass players.
CH: Oh I love bass players! It’s just a different sensibility, that’s really what it is. I feel like I’m lucky to be able to try to make a contribution in a different way you know?
HI: When you’re composing songs do you compose them on your 8 string or do you use a guitar and bass guitar?
CH: Both. Sometimes I use a keyboard, which I’m terrible at so it forces me to not just mess around. Sometimes I’ll just go right on my instrument and do it. And it’s different every time.
HI: So what do you feel is going to be your lasting impression on music in general? What do you want you legacy to be?
CH: Oh just another link in the chain that's all I hope to be. Really, honestly, that's it. That's all you can hope for. Because there's nothing really that's more important than that. It's just when you're younger you have delusions of grandeur and as you get older you realize that the best thing you can do is just work really hard, really be happy and enjoy the people you're playing with and be happy that you get the opportunity to make a contribution. And that's it. I just want to make a contribution. I just want to do something original and maybe, hopefully, I can help someone learn from me the immense amount I learned from everyone else and then they can make a contribution. That's all you can do really.