Charlie Hunter calls his music "antacid jazz," a jab at the legion of critics who've tagged his new-school stylings "acid," which in critic speak has come to mean "jazz by young people in tee shirts." Hunter certainly fits the profile--he's sworn never to wear a suit onstage.
In that respect, and several more important others, the 28-year-old Bay Area bandleader is the anti-Marsalis. Hunter's the loose hipster where Marsalis is the careful traditionalist--in dress, attitude and approach to music. Like Marsalis, Hunter is the celebrated, articulate leader of a school of young jazz musicians.
But while Marsalis and the "young lions" are neoclassicists who play painstakingly rendered, straight and narrow jazz that seeks a return to the form's pre-fusion, unplugged glory days, Charlie Hunter and the rapidly flowering Bay Area "hip bop" scene (Hunter gives that label a thumbs down as well) are all about a new sound. They deal improvisational, frequently funky instrumental music with the spirit and swing of jazz, played from an edgy, avant-pop perspective.
"Basically, we're doing the same thing jazz did in the '40s and '50s," says Hunter. "We're playing improvised music informed by the better pop sensibilities of the day."
One of the songs on the Charlie Hunter Quartet's new album, Ready . . . Set . . . Shango!, is called "Let's Get Medieval," a savvy allusion to a line from Pulp Fiction. Another, "Ashby Man," was inspired by "a guy who hangs out on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, drinking beer, all day every day." Hunter's second release for the prominent jazz label Blue Note Records, and third overall (his debut, The Charlie Hunter Trio, came out in 1994 on Primus front man Les Claypool's indie label Prawn Song), Shango! finds a more sultry, slack Hunter than the first two recordings; high-energy affairs designed to spotlight his technical sorcery on the eight-string guitar.
A wonder to see live, Hunter still dazzles on the new album, simultaneously sketching fluid bass lines and burning through precise, finger-picked solos over the top. But on Ready . . . Set . . . Shango!, his technique shares the foreground with freewheeling melodies and clever song structures. The nine jams are tinged with influences ranging from samba ("Teabaggin") to gutbucket blues ("Thursday the 12th").
FYI: the "Shango" is a fabricated dance craze, for which the Charlie Hunter Quartet is the sole purveyor. "It's a ready-made sociocultural movement for the press to feed on," says Hunter.
With the addition of alto sax man Calder Spanier, Hunter's band now has a two-horn front line. Longtime Hunter associate Dave Ellis (tenor sax) left the group on good terms shortly after Shango! was in the can, and has been replaced by Kenny Brooks, formerly of Alphabet Soup. Drummer Scott Amendola rounds out the quartet.
Hunter first met Spanier in the mid-'80s, when they both got by as street jazz musicians in Paris and Zurich. "We did it up right," says Hunter. "The poor, romantic artistes . . . the whole bit." When Hunter returned to the States, he toured with Michael Franti and Rono Tse's short-lived, high-profile protest hip-hop collective Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy. When that group dissolved, Hunter turned his attention back to jazz full-time, put together the Charlie Hunter Trio, and began to gig around the country, playing mostly alternative rock and hip-hop clubs.
Increasingly mixed, Hunter's audiences are peppered with jazz heads who wouldn't know Billy Corgan from Billy Crystal. But Hunter still draws mostly from Lollapalooza nation (his Trio even played the festival's second stage two years ago), and he still favors venues that cater to twentysomethings. The cover charges and drink minimums at upscale jazz clubs, Hunter says, are prohibitively expensive for most of his fans. "We're jazz musicians, but we're jazz musicians from their generation. That's who we share aspects of a common life view with, and that's who we're trying to reach."
A late April 1994 gig had the Charlie Hunter Trio tearing it up at Son of Brazil's, the hip-hop and modern funk venue in SoHo, before an all-ages, mixed-race capacity crowd of skate punks, hip-hop chicks with mini-backpacks and other assorted young, downtown Manhattan hipsters. For an encore, Hunter blasted through the opening chords to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," then segued into a lounging version of "Come As You Are." That medley was also included on his first Blue Note release, Bing, Bing, Bing, which came out last summer. At a show in Los Angeles this spring, however, Hunter brushed off several requests for the Nirvana tribute.
When he isn't on the road, Hunter says he likes to work on his powder-blue '66 Mustang and "just hang out" in Berkeley, his hometown. "Growing up in the Bay Area had a profound effect on my music," he says. "I was exposed to everything from the Dead Kennedys and P-Funk to Art Blakey.
"In the Bay Area, you have all these different cultures living together, and all their musics get semi-assimilated into this nonpolarized state of being where hybrids are free to grow, and there are all these genres and cross genres to play in and around."
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About a year ago, Hunter and his combo filled a regular Friday-night spot at the Up and Down Club, a club in San Francisco's culturally charged SoMa district that quickly became ground zero for a loosely defined, twentysomething jazz movement, whose most prominent acts are the Hunter Quartet, the Broun Felinis, Alphabet Soup, the Eddie Marshall Hip-Hop Jazz Band and the New York keyboard combo Medeski, Martin and Wood, who are scheduled to perform with Hunter and his band on a double bill at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale on Sunday.
So far, Ready . . . Set . . . Shango! has sold more than 60,000 copies, a figure many established jazz artists would qualify as a hit (20,000 is considered a decent sales mark in jazz). Hunter's side project, T.J. Kirk, is also denting the charts with a new album of playful, schizophrenic arrangements of funk and jazz standards by the group's trinity namesake: Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Roland Kirk. Hunter's personal idol was Kirk, who would often play several horns at once, sometimes lying on his back.
"Roland Kirk was intelligently outrageous, and if I pattern myself after any jazz hero, it's him," says Hunter. "We know and respect this music's lineage. Roland Kirk, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong. We know these names. We are in debt to them. But we're from a different generation, and it's our cultural responsibility to help the music evolve."
The Charlie Hunter Quartet is scheduled to perform on Sunday, November 24, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Showtime is 9 p.m.