The Jazz Tortoise 

Charlie Hunter won't reintroduce youthful vigor to jazz -- or at least, not on purpose.

As far as guitar gods go, Charlie Hunter doesn't fit the mold. He isn't flashy or overly eccentric, for one thing; it's hard to imagine him sporting a stovepipe hat à la Slash, dabbling in Jimmy Page-style occultism, or OD-ing like Jerry Garcia. Yet ironically, like many Berkeley-bred guitar players, Hunter is a disciple of card-carrying six-string deity Joe Satriani, the same dude who taught Metallica's Kirk Hammett how to play hammer-ons and arpeggios.

Unlike Hammett, however, Hunter had no interest in becoming a metal militia member, even though that was the flavor of the moment in the East Bay back in Hunter's teenage years. You can almost picture him in a black leather jacket and a battered acoustic guitar, roaming the concrete expanses of Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. High, feeling somewhat alienated from society but finding solace in his music. Scanning his somewhat fuzzy memory banks, he recalls listening to a lot of the Beatles and the Clash back then. But surprisingly for a dude now so synonymous with hipster jazz, he also dabbled in a lot of punk. And that's not even the weirdest part.

"I remember learning songs by the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols," Hunter recalls. "But then, I also remember learning songs by, like -- this is gonna sound really crazy to you -- Peaches and Herb and 'Ring My Bell' by Anita Ward. Learning how to play chord changes to Parliament songs as well, and also learning how to play all the Jimi Hendrix stuff, and all the blues stuff that my mom had lying around the house." Hunter also dug the Specials and Bob Marley, though he admits that "I think as I get older, I don't have an affinity for it like I did when I was a kid."

But by high school, Hunter began growing out of punk; his musical horizons expanded following a simple twist of fate. After being pretty much forced against his will to listen to Weather Report's complex time signatures and worldly chord progressions, a funny thing happened to teenage Hunter: He liked it, and continued in that vein, developing a seven-string instrument that allowed him to play guitar and basslines at the same time.

And thus, one of the brightest lights in modern jazz switched on.

After busking solo all over Europe, performing as a duo with poet and rapper Michael Franti, and joining Franti's industrial-edged hip-hop-agitprop group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (which opened stadium shows for U2), Hunter formed the Charlie Hunter Trio with two other East Bay kids: drummer Jay Lane and tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis. The CHT was ubiquitous to the acid jazz scene popping off in SF during the dot-com daze, holding down a weekly residency at the Elbo Room and appearing frequently at the Up and Down Club, back when that venue was hipster central. Hunter further sharpened his chops with the side project James T. Kirk (whose name was later changed for legal reasons to T.J. Kirk) and progressed rapidly throughout the '90s, expanding his trio to a quartet, adding another string to his custom axe, and releasing a flurry of memorable albums like Bing, Bing, Bing and Ready, Set, Shango! This attracted the attention of esteemed label Blue Note, which put out Hunter's critically acclaimed tribute to Bob Marley's Natty Dread.

In 1997, Hunter relocated to New York, where he still lives. And after five releases on Blue Note, establishing him as one of the premier jazz guitarists of the modern age, he's now recording for indie label ropeadope, which is responsible for his last two records, Right Now Move (credited to the Charlie Hunter Quintet) and his most recent Trio release, Friends Seen and Unseen.

Both records stand on their own amid Hunter's considerable body of work: They are accessible without being overly commercial, and about as utterly unpretentious as jazz can be, with Latin grooves, extended jams, and gospel-blues-funk shuffles for days. All of which bodes well for Hunter as a musician, and for jazz in general (which has been suffering from an old fogey-ish image problem, in case you haven't heard).

But don't call Hunter the savior of jazz or the male equivalent of Norah Jones just yet. He's just making music that sounds and feels good to him, as simple and obvious a concept as that might seem. The guitarist isn't easily smitten by platitudes -- "I'm glad you think so," he replies coolly when it's suggested that his last two records are excellent examples of eminently listenable jazz, especially to often-intimidated younger ears.

"I just feel like my goal was never to go out and get young kids," he says. "I don't have any goal whatsoever, as far as crossing over. I'm lucky because the music I like to do, people my age -- my peers -- wanna hear."

Despite this modesty, Hunter has a well-deserved reputation as an absolute monster live. In fact, if you happened to catch his memorable Yoshi's shows last year, then you know there's a killer instinct within him that comes out in a stage setting, despite his penchant for laid-back grooves. But again, that aggression has developed in a very Berkeleyan way -- he has taken a dab from here and a pinch from there, slowly but surely carving out his own thing from it all. You can hear Hunter's diverse influences in his reworking of the gospel standard "Wade in the Water" and the original jazz-funk of "Oakland" on Right Now Move, or the somehow lush minimalism of "Slow Blues" and the midtempo foot-stomper "Freedom Tickler" on Friends Seen and Unseen. And if you're looking for a signature Hunter solo to put next to Slash's "November Rain" or Page's "No Quarter" in your guitar god pantheon, try his distortion-laced, tough-but-funky turn on the Friends track "Lulu's Crawl."

Hunter's special gift, perhaps, is his ability to simplify the jazz equation, to capture the essence of a bossa nova backbeat one moment and a Dixieland romp the next, without getting bogged down with the baggage of a purist. His technique of playing multiple melodies at the same time on his strange instrument doesn't hurt, either. And though his riffs don't boggle the brain with overly-ostentatious fretwork, Hunter's a solid player who understands the team concept involved in a jazz band. You get the feeling that the reason he's worked with so many great drummers and horn players over the years is because he doesn't hog all the solos. (Speaking of which, the Trio's current incarnation features horn/woodwind player John Ellis and drummer Derrek Philips, who more than uphold the outfit's storied legacy.)

Hunter, meanwhile, compares his own evolution to a certain well-known fable by Aesop. "It's like the tortoise and the hare," he says. "I'm like the tortoise, just slowly moving forward. But always moving forward. I'm just on a pace. I'm not trying to get anywhere fast. Every day, do a little bit more work and move a little bit more forward."

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