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Photograph by Michael Weintrob
Iconoclast: Charlie Hunter is constantly reconfiguring his band and reinventing the genre.

Tough Guys

The new Charlie Hunter Trio brings a harder edge to town.

By Andrew Gilbert

Like a snake shedding its skin, guitarist Charlie Hunter creates a new band every time he gets restless and feels a growth spurt coming on. One thing remains constant, though. No matter what the instrumentation or the players, Hunter is dedicated to what he calls "rhythm music," organized around his ever-evolving conception of the groove. He brings his latest combo with pianist/keyboardist Erik Deutsch and Bay Area drummer Scott Amendola to Kuumbwa on Monday for two shows, the first gig on a two-week Bay Area stand that includes five nights at the glorious new Yoshi's in San Francisco's Fillmore District with the steel guitar-playing Campbell Brothers, and five nights at Yoshi's in Oakland with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.The new trio is featured on the recent Fantasy/Concord Records release Mistico. With its thicker textures and harder edge, the group's sound is considerably different than Hunter's previous trio (with saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips), the band featured on his last two Ropeadope albums, 2004's Friends Seen and Unseen and 2006's Copperopolis.

"It was just time to move on," Hunter says from his home in Brooklyn. "Conceptually I felt that Derrek, John and I had developed this thing and we did it really well, but it was time for me to do a different concept with different-minded musicians. With these guys it's really cool because we can get to all different kinds of stuff sonically that I couldn't really get to with the saxophone."

The Berkeley-raised guitarist, who performs on a custom-built eight-string instrument that allows him to play bass lines that sound much like an organ, has always formed deep connections with his rhythm section. Back in his days as a leader on the Bay Area acid jazz scene, Hunter played extensively with Amendola in T.J. Kirk and several other bands. He spent a year or so working in a duo context with the extraordinary percussionist Leon Parker, and then toured as a duo act with the dynamic drummer Adam Cruz, a connection that injected a potent dose of Afro-Caribbean rhythms into Hunter's music.

It was Amendola, a brilliant band leader in his own right, who turned Hunter on to Deutsch, a highly creative player who divides his time between the Fender Rhodes and piano. "I had been telling my friends that I'm looking for a keyboardist who knows how to get really cool sounds," Hunter says. "A guy who has a great grasp of jazz, but doesn't really care about the jazz stuff."

Deutsch recently released his own CD, Fingerprint (Sterling Circle Records), focusing on his beautifully crafted Americana tunes with an acoustic band featuring Bill Frisell associates Ron Miles on trumpet and Jenny Scheinman on violin. With Hunter, however, he draws on his rock and funk roots as much as his love of ambient grooves.

"As a sideman your goal is to make the music better and always be a helpful force," says Deutsch, 31. "Charlie's a unique musician and it's a new challenge to figure out how to fit in around him. We've tried a lot of things where we occupy the same space. I play a lot of Fender Rhodes using distortion and the volume pedal, and it's like one big harmonic pile-up. Charlie is not afraid of a challenge. He plays the hardest instrument on the planet. When he hired me he didn't want to tell me how to play, he wanted to change how he played. That's why he threw the keyboard in the mix."

Indeed, whether he's grooving with the funk-based combo Garag a Trois with saxophonist Skerik and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore or exploring avant-garde jazz with drummer Bobby Previte in their cooperative combo Groundtruther, which has recorded a series of unpredictable albums for Thirsty Ear featuring guests such as altoist Greg Osby and turntablist DJ Logic, Hunter isn't interested in hewing to a straight-ahead jazz path.

"For the new trio, I wanted to write tunes that weren't as jazzy," Hunter says. "It's a much looser kind of approach. Improvisation isn't always one person taking a solo while the others are comping behind him. A lot of the time we're trying to improvise as a group."

THE CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO performs Monday, Dec. 10, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 adv/$23 door; 831.427.2227 or

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