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Guitarist Charlie Hunter talks 'jam bands,' jazz and going it alone

December 15, 2011 | 12:50 pm

Charlie-hunter600After nearly 20 years of recording, it’s remarkable how much ground Charlie Hunter has covered. Rising out of the Bay Area jazz scene with a freakish virtuosity on a custom eight-string guitar that allowed him to play bass and melody lines simultaneously, Hunter performed at Lollapalooza in 1993 and released the first of six albums for Blue Note in 1995. Since then he’s recorded with musicians that include drummer Leon Parker, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and Norah Jones, who sang on two tracks for Hunter’s 2001 album “Songs From the Analog Playground.”

Often lumped in with the so-called “jam band” crowd after earning a following on the festival circuit, Hunter’s music isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. Having touched on elements of soul-jazz, reggae and boisterous funk-rock in the past, Hunter recently set aside electronics for a cleaner tone well-suited for a 2010 solo album of classic covers chosen by his 100-year-old grandfather aptly called “Public Domain.”

This weekend Hunter comes to the Mint for two nights with drummer Scott Amendola, who’s played with Hunter since the ’90s. Keep reading for Hunter’s thoughts on moving beyond the jam-band scene, his ambivalence toward being labeled a jazz artist and the benefits of going it alone in today’s music industry.

After you first came up in the '90s it seemed like you were part this mini-movement that brought new life into jazz around the so-called “jam band” scene. Is that how it felt for you at the time?

I feel like we were more on the fringe of that world. I mean, it was certainly economically helpful at times, that’s for sure. Because you get into a situation where there’s very few outlets for your music, and you’ve got to go to the outlets that are going to help you make a living … I certainly hope my music is in no way, shape or form influenced by anything that would be known as a jam band. If it is, then I’m going to do something else. (laughs)

It doesn’t matter to me because you don’t really get to choose the era you live in and you do not get to choose the marketplace within which you have to function. I don’t enjoy that world very much — and I know it’d be smarter if I did because that’s where all the money is — but I’d rather play a really intimate show for 50 people and really feel like I did something that was a quality experience for everybody involved rather than one of those giant shows and you’re playing at excruciatingly loud volume levels.... There just comes a point where you reach a certain age and can no longer be a part of that. I understand the importance of it, and I’m totally for it for anyone who can deal with it. But it’s not for me, I’ve proven that I can’t do that.

For years there was always that debate of what constituted jazz music or a jazz artist. Did that ever come up with you, whether you "fit in" as a jazz musician?

Well, maybe so. I think when I was younger I let that get to me, but the fact of the matter is jazz really stopped when Louis Armstrong switched from cornet to trumpet. I’d have to be in a time machine to really be a "jazz musician," right?

I’ve spent -- and spend -- countless hours sitting with those recordings and learning as much as I can, and I have an affinity for that music. And hopefully in some form in the time that I’m living I can do that music some kind of justice. But generally I think that whole concept of whatever you want to call "jazz" . . . I don’t know of too many musicians who think in those terms.

Unless you’re Wynton Marsalis, who I think is brilliant and definitely managed to decide what [jazz] is and the parameters within which you have to function to be considered a jazz musician. And I think he's right, I would definitely agree with him. My whole issue is I want to try and make a living music that comes from what [Wynton] is doing. I would much rather listen to him play and do what he does than a guy who's my age or younger who's really earnestly "trying to be a jazz musician."

You're on a seven-string guitar now, and as you came up that was your thing: You were the guy who could play the bass and guitar at the same time. After so many years has that ever felt limiting?

That's an interesting question. . . Isn't this whole creative music thing partly making your own sound? And doesn't that mean learning all that's happened before you and using that as a toolbox to move into something that's more of an honest expression of your humanity? I feel like it's been a lot more work than it would've been if I had just played a guitar and a bass and just went from there. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. It actually simplifies things, and [allows me to] be more direct. And less desperate (laughs). Because there's really nothing more desperate than a guitar player playing a lot of notes.

You've been self-releasing albums since 2008. What inspired you to go that route?

Well, it wouldn't make any sense for me to do anything else. If you had a record company, why would you give me any money to sell so few records? Whereas I can make a record really inexpensively that sounds really good, and I can sell enough CDs to be able to make the next record. So it just made sense.

That's interesting because for a long time you were on Blue Note--

Yeah, but that was a different day. There still was a record industry and that whole way of doing business. Scott and I were talking about that, we were on Conan O'Brien, and we toured opening for Tracy Chapman and we did a million of these really high profile things and everyone was going, "Oh man, next week you’re going to SoundScan 10,000 records, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that." And I'm just like, no matter how accessible we think what we do is, it's really not. It's going to be inaccessible to 90% of the public, so don’t even bother trying to reach them. They'll find you if they need to. Let's worry about the 10% -- and there’s a lot of people in that 10%. Worry about trying to find them, and you'll find those people.

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-- Chris Barton

Charlie Hunter / Scott Amendola Duo, The Mint, 6010 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles. 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $20. www.themintla.com.

Photo: Charlie Hunter onstage. Credit: Tak Tokiwa.

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