Return of the Prodigious Son

Jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter revisits the Bay Area, energized and uncorrupted by the bustle of New York City

Some might say that a person would have to be crazy to abandon life here for New York City. But for Charlie Hunter, the beautiful Bay Area was a barren wasteland.

"I felt that as a musician it was just as expensive for me to live in the Bay Area," the 31-year-old jazz guitarist says. "But there were no employment opportunities for me other than playing just the local nightclubs." So, disillusioned and looking for a career boost, he packed up his eight-string guitar and moved to Brooklyn.

Hunter grew up in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, which is known for its music program, although Hunter didn't participate in it. Instead, he learned the basics from guitarist Joe Satriani. He says he wasn't any special pupil, "just one of 50 or 60 local guitar players." Berkeley High did, however, have some bearing on his first real taste of success: Hunter recruited alumnus tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis for what would become, along with Jay Lane on drums, the Charlie Hunter Trio. (Both have since been a part of Bob Weir's post-Grateful Dead excursion, Ratdog.)

The trio's big break was landing a weekly gig at the Elbo Room in the heart of the Mission District. Their first show was on a Tuesday night with a $3 cover. Twenty-five people showed up. But Elbo General Manager Dennis Ring let the guitarist build steam, and after about six months, Hunter was drawing upward of 600 people for his two-set shows.

It was hard work. "Every time he played, he was there early to set up, unlike lots of other musicians," Ring says. At one point, Hunter and crew played 85 consecutive Tuesdays without a break. Hunter preferred Tuesdays, Ring remembers, because it was less crazy than on the weekends, and the fans who came out during the week were more dedicated. "After a year he asked if we could raise the cover to $4," Ring says with a chuckle.

He agreed.
As Hunter's popularity grew, so did the size of the band. The trio became a quartet and then a quintet, with local percussionist John Santos and alto sax player Calder Spanier enriching the sound. But at the heart of the music were Hunter and his custom-made eight-string guitar, on which he rhythmically picked the bass notes on three strings while skillfully articulating well-planned melodies on the other five.

"The way I think about it is, the eight-string is to the guitar what the drum set is to drums," says Hunter. "Originally you have a guy down in New Orleans playing a bass drum with a little cymbal on it and another guy playing a snare drum, right? And eventually some guy put them together and created a whole vocabulary for that instrument as a drum set.

"There's been a vocabulary for the guitar and a vocabulary for the bass, and what I'm trying to do is establish some kind of vocabulary for this instrument."

Of course, having the bass and guitar parts unified in one instrument does have its limitations. The two registers are invariably tied together, and one can only stray and wander the frets as far as the hand can stretch. But with Hunter's touch and groove, it's easy to forget that the same man is playing both parts.

Following a self-titled debut release on Les Claypool's Prawn Song label in 1994 (Hunter had opened for Primus a year earlier as part of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy), Hunter was soon signed by Blue Note. He and his protean band churned out a number of ever-maturing albums, including a jazz rendition of Bob Marley's Natty Dread disc for the Blue Note Cover Series.

But by 1997, Hunter felt there was a musical vacuum forming in the Bay Area. "It felt to me like there wasn't really any place for musicians anymore, or the culture that produced musicians like me, Dave Ellis, Josh Redman, Benny Green, and countless others," he says.

Hunter's first significantly revamped lineup appeared on an album recorded in September 1997 with some old friends in San Francisco. Then, for 1998's Return of the Candyman, the debut of Pound for Pound, Hunter gathered pals Scott Amendola and John Santos for percussion. He also recruited vibraphonist Stefon Harris to create a completely different sound, one conspicuously lacking horns. (When it came time to tour the country with the New Orleans band Galactic, the percussionists were tied down to their Bay Area bases and Harris had other obligations -- as a result, Monte Croft took over on the vibraphone with Willard Dyson on drums.)

But the economic realities of being a jazz musician in Northern California convinced Hunter it was time to venture forth. Soon after the tour, he relocated to Brooklyn, something he now calls "one of the best moves I've ever made."

"The only thing I miss about the Bay Area are a few restaurants -- but I'm not going to give them any free advertising," he adds with a laugh. "And I still have a few friends there," he says more seriously.

Upon settling in New York City, Hunter found himself surrounded by the talent he'd been seeking. "The great thing about New York," he says, "is whatever you want, the best person in the world is here. Moving here put me in a position where I was playing with people who were so much better than I was that I just had to become a better musician -- I just had to deal."

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