Interview: The ongoing innovation of jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter

A student of Joe Satriani, Charlie Hunter has applied his versatile jazz guitar talent to solo work and collaborations that span genres for more than 20 years. A student of Joe Satriani, Charlie Hunter has applied his versatile jazz guitar talent to solo work and collaborations that span genres for more than 20 years.

Like most great jazz musicians, guitarist Charlie Hunter never gets complacent in his craft. Since emerging from California’s Bay Area in the early ’90s, the innovative ax slinger has defied convention by expanding the parameters of a guitarist’s role. The versatility starts with the ingenuity of his instrument, a custom-made, seven-string guitar that allows Hunter to play a fluid blend of bass, lead, and rhythm with mesmerizing agility.

During a two-decade career, he’s applied his skills to a wide range of projects, including a half-dozen albums under his own name for the venerable Blue Note Records. Considered a master of both post-bop improvisation and new-school groove, Hunter has landed in a number of interesting collaborations through the years: the gonzo fusion outfit Garage A Trois with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, the funk-jazz expansionist crew T.J. Kirk and the Michael Franti-led, politically charged hip-hop crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. His name also appears in the credits of albums by the likes of D’Angelo, John Mayer, and Frank Ocean.

In addition, Hunter has become well-known for delivering jazz-based interpretations of popular music from other genres. In 1997 he released an instrumental look at Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, and last year he toured in the quartet Omaha Diner (with fellow underground aces Bobby Previte, Steve Bernstein, and Skerik), a group that plays virtuosic reboots of chart-topping radio hits. Lately Hunter has been playing in a duo format with lauded drummer Scott Amendola. The pair just started unveiling a series of four five-song EPs that tackle songs by Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Before his performance at The Southern Café and Music Hall with Amendola on Wednesday night, Hunter chatted with C-VILLE Weekly via phone.

C-VILLE Weekly: From your reinventions of Bob Marley to Hank Williams to Beyoncé, what compels you to interpret the work of certain artists on the guitar? 

Charlie Hunter: It depends on the songs, really more than anything else. If the songs and the melodies are really strong, it really works. In Omaha Diner, where we only do songs that are No. 1 hits, we’ve found that the newest songs are really hard to get anything going with, because they’re not very melodic. They’re so much more about the performance and the production. As long as songs have a lot of weight, then it works fine.

In the past few years you’ve settled into a collaborative partnership with drummer Scott Amendola. What are the advantages and challenges to the duo format? 

Scott and I have been playing off and on together for 20 years, since my days on Blue Note. With the duo format, necessity is the mother of invention, but personally I’ve come to really like it for what I do. It’s fun every night.

You can cover a lot of ground stylistically, pretty seamlessly, without it seeming forced. If you have a trio and you introduce a saxophone, then immediately everything sounds like jazz. With a duo, as long you know how to use the space as the third member, then it will sound good. If you start trying to fill up all of the space, that’s when things start to sound not so great anymore.

How did you develop your unconventional style on a seven-string guitar? 

When I was younger I started playing drums and bass, as well as guitar. When I became focused on the guitar I wanted to still be able to experience the fun things I liked to do on the bass and drums. On my instrument the magic happens on the counterpoints between the bass and guitar sides, as well as during the interaction with the other musicians. On a regular guitar you can play lots of linear stuff very fast, in a flashy way, so for me it’s a different kind of thing.

You’ve worked on a vast number of projects throughout the years with many different players. What do you look for in a musical collaboration?

I look for a variety of different projects to keep things interesting. It really just has to be fun all the time, so the audience is having fun as well. When it stops being fun, I know it’s time to move on. That keeps things exciting for me as a musician.

Since you always have new projects on the slate, what can we expect next? 

I’m recording a duo record with a vocalist, Dionne Farris. We’ve played a gig or two and had a lot of fun rehearsing. It’s going to be a really great project that allows me to do some stuff I don’t normally get to do.

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