Jazz Notes: Seven-String Jazz Guitarist Charlie Hunter Returns With Another Winner
By Dan Ouellette, ZEAL Senior Editor, July 22, 2016
Whether he’s been high profile or low profile on the music scene, seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter has spent a quarter century honing his art as a jazz artist, a groove master and a blues-fueled craftsman. After his first album, 1993’s Charlie Hunter Trio, released on pop star Les Claypool’s Prawn Song label, Hunter was signed to prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records where he released a total of eight albums in ten years, which were internationally distributed. When he decided to part ways with Blue Note, only one of his albums, 2003’s Right Now Move on Ropeadope, received such distribution.
However, his July 22-released latest, whimsically titled Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth, marks a return to a bigger potential audience. His 18th as a leader, the recording will be released on the rising-star Brooklyn jazz band Snarky Puppy’s label, GroundUP Music, and distributed by Universal Music Classics.
Hunter is not only a singular guitarist (he uniquely plays a custom-made seven-string ax that allows him to deliver bass grooves simultaneously with rhythm chords and solo notes), but he’s also a creative whose style and expression continue to advance with each project he immerses himself into.
That was recognized by Snarky Puppy’s bandleader, Michael League, who had been a Hunter fan since he was in high school. “I had been hearing the band’s name, but I didn’t know what they were,” said Hunter. “I had no idea they were so big and so great and that Michael was a cool guy who built something out of nothing.”
Hunter played on one track of Snarky Puppy’s latest album, Family Dinner Volume 2, and was asked by League to record an album for his GroundUP Music label. “Michael told me that he has high hopes,” said Hunter, “and that this could well get my music to a younger audience.”
Hunter’s superlative ten-tune collection of songs—all originals except for one cover—is steeped in the blues. But the blues-crazed guitarist can also play lyrical, can sting and bite, can rock—all of which is in full display on the new recording. He had enlisted a stellar support team of trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and drummer Bobby Previte who play live in the studio for optimum effect. Hunter has a long history playing with Fowlkes and Previte, and found out about Knuffke on a recommendation from trumpeter Ron Miles. On the album Hunter’s new music takes on a noir feel, lopes in a fluid slow flow, charges upbeat with a groove and horn interchange, twirls into a playful party mode, moves into a gentle lyricism—all soaked in a blues sensibility and tone.
“My idea was to make a blues record, so that’s what it is,” said Hunter. “I wanted to have the improvising, but not jazz. The concept was to play and not think of it as jazz, but an improvisation of the blues and r&b. This is not from a jazz harmonic place, but straight blues and r&b improvising. It’s all done live in the same room. No overdubs and maybe just one edit where we fixed a note.”
As for that 11-word title, Hunter has broken the standard rule of sticking to short names before with such albums as 2009’s Gentlemen, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid. For Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth, he explained, “It’s a Mike Tyson quote. He’s talking about a specific boxing thing, but I feel that it applies to every endeavor. For example, it’s like someone coming out of music school with a plan before they get punched down. So that title is also the name of one of the songs. In fact, almost every name of a song on the record is a quote from someone, somewhere.”
Highlights include the grooved title track, Hunter’s version of a T Bone Walker tune, and the slow shuffle reminiscent of Little Walker on “(Looks Like) Someone Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication” (the quote coming from contemporary New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich).
Hunter shifts the tempo up on “Leave Him Lay,” with a ZZ Top guitar feel whose melody comes from the parallel worlds of Curtis Mayfield, Parliament Funkadelic and Dr. Dre with the unexpected chord changes that reflect the singing of Bessie Smith. As for the title? Hunter says that drummer Mike Clark in his early years was playing with blues great Jimmy Reed, who showed up late at a show. “When the curtain opened, Jimmy was so drunk he fell forward,” Hunter says. “The curtain closed and someone said, ‘Shouldn’t we drag him in?’ And the bass player just said, ‘Leave him lay.’”
The mid-tempo “Big Bill’s Blues” by blues star Big Bill Broonzy is the only cover on the album. “I’ve loved that song since I was a kid,” says Hunter. “When my mom was ready to move, I asked her for one of her old records and it was by Big Bill. The band has fun with the piece. I said to everyone, here’s how we’re going to do it. It was super—one take.”
One of Hunter’s best spotlight soloing comes on “(Wish I Was) Already Paid and on My Way Home,” which is the guitarist’s tribute to legendary blues guitarist Otis Rush. The title? A Chicago blues musician was playing his first gig with Rush, introduced himself and asked him how he was doing. Rush’s response is the name of the song.
The bluesy bold finale, “The Guys. Get. Shirts,” has a New Orleans influence in the mix. “This is my idea of a real ragtime song that goes into a 12/8 shuffle,” Hunters said. Once again the title has a history: It’s based on a secretly recorded YouTube mid-‘80s rant by an angry Paul Anka on his crew and band after a horrible show. At one point, the pop singer from the ‘50s criticized his band members who were casually dressed. He yelled that the guys have got to get shirts!
In summing up the new recording, Hunter is adamant: just don’t call it jazz. “I don’t consider myself a jazz artist,” he said. “I certainly can play it, but I’d be the last guy to do a bebop or straight-ahead gig. I’m both not that good at that and not interested in getting into it. As you can tell from Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth, I have a lot more affinity for r&b and the blues.”