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Guitarist Charlie Hunter Plays All Eight Strings For You

His manual dexterity is on full display on new, groove-laden CD.

At a recent dinner party, guests listened to the song "Al Green," off guitarist Charlie Hunter's new self-titled CD, and tried to figure out what instruments were being used. "Piano, bass, drums and guitar?" one guest ventured. "Synthesizer, guitar and electronic drums?" suggested another.

The answer? Conga drums and guitar — no overdubs.

Hunter, 32, plays an eight-string guitar of his own invention — three bass strings and five guitar strings. That pretty much makes him one of a kind.

Bluesman Big Joe Williams used a nine-string instrument, and plenty of folks play 12-string guitars. But Hunter's ax is built for fingers dexterous enough to do two things at once: Play bass and lead, or bass and chords.

It's not that different from what organists do, bouncing out the basslines with their feet on the pedals, but organists use all four limbs. It is startling to hear the juicy resonance of Hunter's bass parts mixing with his purling melody lines and realize that he is doing it all with his hands.

"I've been doing this type of playing for a long time," says the San Francisco Bay Area native, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "If I was still playing [a] six-string guitar, I'd be an infinitely better six-string guitarist than I am now on eight-string guitar. It's like having four majors in college, because not only do you have to learn to play really convincing basslines with integrity, but all of the melodic lines. And then you have to put those two together with these counter-melodies and counter-rhythms, and make it happen."

In The Beginning

After making his first records with the hip-hop group the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy (which spawned the current group Spearhead), Hunter first made his mark on the jazz scene in 1993 with the Charlie Hunter Trio, featuring a tenor sax and drums, on Mammoth Records. He quickly was signed to Blue Note after that, delivering Bing Bing Bing! in 1995. He's been with the label since, recording Ready! Set! Shango! in 1996.

A year later, for Blue Note Records' cover series, Hunter added another horn to his lineup and re-created Bob Marley's classic album Natty Dread. In 1998 Hunter teamed up with vibes player Stefon Harris in a band called Pound for Pound to make Return of the Candyman. Last year the guitarist enlisted percussionist Leon Parker for Duo.

Charlie Hunter combines all the guitarist's influences into a cogent whole. The CD features saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum (another Bay Area expatriate), trombonist Josh Roseman, percussionists Steven Chopek and Robert Perkins, and Parker on the trap set and congas. The record features seven compositions by Hunter, along with distinctive versions of R&B vocal great Donny Hathaway's inspirational "Someday We'll All Be Free" and Thelonious Monk's jazz classic "Epistrophy."

"I'm not going to play [the jazz standard] 'All the Things You Are,' because I'm not interested in that right now," says Hunter. "The classic jazz repertoire is a part of the music I'm into and identify with. But the fact is, so is Brazilian music, Cuban music, West African stuff, New Orleans funk, etc. These so-called groove elements are just as important. I'm not doing this type of music because it's neat; I'm doing it because it's natural for me.

"From the very beginning in the Bay Area 10 years ago, my friends and I were all trying to be bebop heads and play [John] Coltrane's 'Countdown' as fast as we could," he continues. "But we were also brought up on rock, funk, Prince, blues. I'm just being honest about my age, how I grew up and what I listened to, and being honest in portraying that in the music."

Hunter attended Berkeley High School, whose jazz program has turned out players such as saxophonists David Murray, Joshua Redman and Craig Handy, and pianist Benny Green. "There must be something going on there," Hunter said. "But I wasn't in the jazz program at all. The scene in that school is amazing, I just wasn't in the jazz thing back then."

Hunter, who recently appeared on R&B singer D'Angelo's Voodoo, has a soul thing going on with "Al Green" (RealAudio excerpt), a duet featuring Hunter and Parker on conga.

"That tune was a thing that I thought, 'Hmmm maybe Al Green would sing this.' It's a slow soul funk R&B type of vibe. I did bring a bit of what I learned from the D'Angelo project to the record."

"Someday We'll All Be Free" (RealAudio excerpt) is solo guitar. "I love Donny Hathaway and it was just something I was messing around with and thought might make a nice ending. I have been playing more solo stuff lately, so this just fit right in."

The tenor and trombone team of Apfelbaum and Roseman makes "Nothin' but Trouble" (RealAudio excerpt) cook like mad. Says Hunter, "That tune works for listening as well as dancing. It's a straight up stinky, gutbucket Texas shuffle."

Hip To Be Hip

Hunter is one of the most popular jazz guitarists of his generation, but don't expect to find him playing traditional jazz clubs.

"I try my hardest not to play in jazz venues, because I feel they are too expensive for 90 percent of my audience," he said. "Honestly, I feel like I'm worth 20 bucks, but I'm not gonna charge 40 or 50 bucks, which is what most jazz clubs charge, after a minimum. I can't pay that much so why should I charge my fans that much?"

Another jazz musician of the same mind is saxophonist Karl Denson. His band Tiny Universe avoids the jazz club circuit and instead plays to large crowds on the growing jazz-groove-jam band scene. Denson and Hunter played to sold-out crowds at the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Hunter played with a pick-up trio, Garage a Trois.

Hunter recently played on Denson's forthcoming solo record, which should be out in the fall on Verve or Blue Note.

"He came in and played on a few tunes and just killed it," Denson said. "Charlie fits in any musical situation you want to do. He's incredible. The tune is called the 'Rumpwinder,' an old-school boogaloo, Lee Morgan type of thing. He also came in and read down a really hard chart called A Shorter Path. It's a really tough piece of music and he just knocked it out. He's mind-blowing, a complete musician."

Singer Patricia Barber, whose Night Club on Blue Note hits stores on Sept. 26, also features Hunter.

"Charlie's musical identity is completely natural and unpretentious," Barber said. "In other words, Charlie is so hip, he doesn't know he's hip."

Hunter is about to hit the road with a trio featuring percussionists Chopek and Chris Lovejoy.

Charlie Hunter, Steven Chopek, Chris Lovejoy tour dates:

June 15; Charleston, S.C.; Music Farm

June 16; Charlotte, S.C.; Afro American Cultural Center

June 17; Carboro, N.C.; Cats Cradle

June 18; Asheville, N.C.; Be Here Now

June 20; Lexington, Ky.; Lynagh's Music Club

June 21; Indianapolis, Ind.; Jazz Kitchen

June 22; Detroit, Mich.; Magic Bag

June 24; Charleston, W.Va.; Mountain Stage

June 25; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Club Cafe

June 26; Philadelphia, Pa.; Upstage Theatre

June 28; Providence, R.I.; Lupo's

June 29; Boston, Mass.; House of Blues

July 6; Kongsberg, Norway; Grand Hotel

July 27; Englewood, Colo.; Gothic Theater

July 28; Boulder, Colo.; Boulder Theater

July 30; Reno, Nev.; Big Ed's

Aug. 1; Seattle, Wash.; Century Ballroom

Aug. 2; Portland, Ore.; Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre

Aug. 4; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Kuumbwa Jazz Center (with Kurt Elling)

Aug. 5; San Francisco, Calif.; Bimbo's 365 Club (with Kurt Elling)

Aug. 6; Sacramento, Calif.; Crest Theater (with Kurt Elling)

Sept. 5; Philadelphia, Pa.; Annenberg Center