Interview: Guitarist Charlie Hunter, Playing at Jazz at the Bistro This Weekend

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

"My attitude is, whatever other aesthetic thing you want to put on the music is great, but it's got to groove," said guitarist Charlie Hunter. The comment came in reply to a query about drummer Eric Kalb, who will be playing with Hunter tonight through Saturday at Jazz at the Bistro. But it also serves as a fair summary of the guitarist's overall approach to music.

The groove is perhaps the one thing that's always constant for Hunter, who's known for his distinctive technique that involves playing both guitar and bass parts simultaneously on a custom-built seven-string instrument. A famously prolific collaborator, he's worked with dozens of musicians and recorded more than twenty CDs since first breaking out in the early '90s, including two recordings issued since he last played the Bistro in January 2009.

His 2010 solo effort, Public Domain, inspired by conversations with his grandfather about old-time music, saw Hunter remaking vintage pop songs that, as the title suggests, had lapsed out of copyright. His previous CD, 2009's puckishly titled Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You That You Will Not Be Getting Paid, featured the guitarist sparring with a three-piece brass section that evoked moods ranging from chamber ensemble to New Orleans barroom to big-city traffic jam. His sets at the Bistro will feature material from both CDs, as well as some new compositions, Hunter says.

His current trio features bass trumpeter Michael Williams and Kalb, who Hunter says "can really groove. He's got that Joe Dukes kind of thing that I like." (Dukes drummed with organist "Brother" Jack McDuff and other popular soul-jazz performers of the '50s and '60s.) "I met him many years ago when he was out with John Scofield, and we've been playing together for a couple of years."

The newest member of the group, Williams is playing an instrument rarely seen outside of concert bands and orchestras, and using it in an unusual way in the context of a jazz trio, for background riffs and textures as much as soloing. "It's the weirdest thing, isn't it?" Hunter jokes. "I wanted that kind of sound, not so much the jazzy trumpet player out front, with a bunch of solos."

Public Domain was Hunter's first solo CD in a decade, and only the second of his career. The stripped-down, spontaneous quality of the recording parallels some changes that Hunter has made to his guitar rig in recent years. After playing a custom-built eight-string instrument for most of his career, Hunter tired of struggling with certain setup and intonation issues, and commissioned a new seven-string guitar. "During that time, I said I don't really need this extra high string. All the energy I spent trying to manipulate that string that wasn't really being played was a lot of work, " he said. "As an experiment I got rid of it, and I've never looked back. The more time I spent concentrating on those kinds of things, the less time I had to deal with the groove."

Charlie Hunter is at Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Boulevard, tonight through Saturday. Two sets each night, 8:30 and 10:15 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 314-534-1111 for tickets or order online here.

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