Two minutes into the conversation, the clearest thing is that with Charlie Hunter, it's all good. It's a sunny fall afternoon in New Jersey on his end of the line, where he's gassing up his recently fixed beater and shooting the breeze with me so affably that I forget this is an interview. Do I know that in New Jersey, it's mandated by law that a gas station attendant pump your gas? I do know this, because it was a plot point in a recent episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, my favorite TV show. We could go on like this, I feel, for the next half hour.
Laidback is Hunter's M.O., which is interesting because he's made his name producing incredibly complex music. The jazz/rock/fusion guitarist studied with the legendary Joe Satriani in his native Berkeley (which may be where all the chill comes from) and played for a time with the experimental, socially conscious hip-hop act the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early '90s. Since starting the Charlie Hunter Trio in 1993, he's turned out a cool 17 albums of soaring, exuberant fusion jazz as well as popping in and out of recording projects with acts like Mos Def, Norah Jones, John Mayer and local artist Stanton Moore's Garage A Trois. Last year, with Garage A Trois, Hunter played on a moody, hypnotic album, Outre Mer, which allegedly was the soundtrack to an as yet unreleased and potentially imaginary movie. He gets around.
For the past 14 years, Hunter has wrung his intricate licks from a custom-made eight-string guitar -- the top five are guitar strings and the bottom three bass -- which allows him to play lead guitar and bass simultaneously for a full, unique sound not unlike a Hammond organ. This year, to allow for more dexterity, he got rid of the top guitar string, had the instrument's neck reworked and retuned it in a way he says lets him get closer to the new sound he's going for.
"Now it's the lower three strings of a bass and the middle four of a guitar," he explains. "It's easier physically to play, and the sound's lower. [The new configuration] lets me do more musically. Before, the neck was really large and cumbersome -- it was too thick. So it really allows me to get to more music with less strings. I lose a lot of harmonics and some higher things, but I gain so much in angles that it really makes up for it. I know it sounds real esoteric, but it's all about the combinations and angles I can get to with my fingers."
The redone guitar will get a workout with Hunter's new musical direction -- a looser, more rock-fusion sound than what he's done in the past. It's not for nothing that the Blue Note alum is playing his two New Orleans dates at the rock club One Eyed Jacks, a more regular destination for punk rock and '80s dance nights than serious jazz. This fall tour is his first with a completely new band lineup, one Hunter thinks is just right for a new musical direction. After the release of this year's Copperopolis (Ropeadope), longtime sax, clarinet and organ player John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips gave their seats in the band to keyboardist Erik Deutsch and drummer Simon Ott.
"It was just time to change it up," Hunter says. "We'd been playing together for a long time, and we'd exhausted what we could get to as a group. It's the thing of playing the music without worrying about bebopping ... getting more into the music I was into when I was a kid, and just letting the guitar be a guitar. Not worrying about trying to win some kind of intellectual jazz arms race."
One notable absence in the new version of the trio is the lack of horns. John Ellis' tenor sax was an anchor in earlier trio work and leads several of the tracks on Copperopolis, like the moody, urban creeper of a title track, although other songs, like the Hendrix-influenced "Cueball Bobbin'" and the lazy, tension-laced rocker "A Street Fight Could Break Out" hint at Hunter's new guitar-driven rock agenda.
"It's just time for me to get away from that linear approach to playing improvised music," Hunter explains. "Having a horn in the group puts me in a space where I'm reacting in a way I'm not interested in doing; it puts me in a space that's not sonically what I want to hear."
Hear what Hunter wants to hear at One Eyed Jacks on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14-15 at 10 p.m.