Charlie Hunter reinvents the voice of jazz guitar

If Charlie Hunter ever quit his jazz-innovator gig to become a street performer, he would probably go the route of one of those bizarre one-man-bands. You know, the walking yard sale whose body is completely covered with musical instruments. High-hat mounted to his head, bass drum on his chest, gypsy cymbals on each finger, rubbing two sitars together with his knees, Hunter might finally be able to express the completeness of his individual musical talent. For now, however, he'll have to settle for his eight-string guitar, an instrument that only allows him to perform bass, organ and guitar parts all at once.
"I'm into challenges and this instrument is a big challenge," says Hunter. "But what's nice about it is that because there are so many facets to the instrument itself, so many technical things to begin with — and then of course there's all of the other important things like actually making music on the thing — that my development has been a lot slower than it would have been if I had played a more conventional instrument. So the fun of it is that there is always something exciting to look forward to as far as getting something more out of the instrument."
In this regard, the eight-string guitar might be the only instrument properly suited to Hunter, an artist whose musical vocabulary is characterized as much by an urgent sense of reinvention and exploration as it is by his consistently distinct and beautiful instrumental voice.
"I think that what I'm doing is just being true to the person I am," Hunter explains. "I always try to overachieve. I'm always trying to do this very complex, complicated instrument thing, and that's who I am. Some days I just say to myself, 'Wouldn't it be easier if I just played bass or just played guitar?' Some days I just want to play drums. The reality is that it would last about a week for me, and then I would try to get back and do what I'm trying to do again. All I can do is try to be myself, really."
Recording seven full-length albums in the last seven years under his own name and still finding time to perform as a guest on projects as disparate as D'Angelo's Voodoo and Les Claypool's Highball With the Devil, Hunter's got the over-achievement thing down. But while such high productivity can often produce a rut or formula, Hunter finds a way to reinvent his approach almost every time he hits the road or pushes the record button.
Playing in every situation from a quintet with vibraphone to a duo with steel drums, the only common thread throughout the musical career of Charlie Hunter is the distinction of his musical voice, a funky quiver that hints at both the jazz organ tradition of Groove Holmes and Jack McDuff as well as the proto-acid jazz guitar of Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. The end result, however, is comparable to no one musician. To anyone familiar with it, Hunter's is one of the most immediately recognizable instrumental sounds in jazz today.
"What I've done my whole life is try to check out every musician who was important to me. In the end I realized that there's really no musician I want to be except the best musician I can be myself from having learned from all these great masters. What I've learned more than anything from listening is that the most important thing is to make your own style and be your own person, and that's what makes the music."
What makes the music in Charlie Hunter's case is an almost tangible sense of evolution and progression. The latest incarnation of his sound is a tendency toward more economical and open arrangements, with a strong Latin and Afro-Brazilian percussive element.
"I think I'm getting more mature," Hunter says, "and I'm accepting limitations and working within limitations instead of always trying to play beyond them — trying to make art with the instrument instead of trying to play outside what I can do. And just from playing and playing and playing, you know what to play and what not to play. You get seasoned."
The Charlie Hunter Trio plays the Planet Jam Cotton Club, Thurs., Nov. 16. Tickets are $16. For more information, call 404-688-1193.