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Frets Don't Fail Me Now: Charlie Hunter checks to see that the stars and his eight-string guitar are all in alignment.

Charlie Can't Wank

Eight-String guitar phenom Charlie Hunter brings his simpler, more melodic trio back home for the holidays

By Peter Koht

The guitar has a fearsomely misshapen learning curve. You can learn "Blowing in the Wind" in about four minutes, but it will take about 14 more years to really develop your chops on the beast. Once you add two more strings, and install nonparallel frets and separate bass and guitar pickups, the equation gets infinitely more complex. Fifteen years after ordering his first eight-string guitar, Charlie Hunter is still struggling with the instrumental hydra. "This thing is really hard," Hunter says. "There are times when I just love playing it, and sometimes I just feel like stopping altogether."

Frustrations aside, Hunter is one of the world's greatest string instrumentalists, playing both bass and guitar while at the same time crafting intense polyrhythmic tunes and improvisations. Unlike most virtuosos, Hunter realized that "the more simple the technique, the better the music ends up sounding."

First hitting the road with Michael Franti's Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Hunter found his career taking off right around the time that he squeaked out of Berkeley High School. But Hunter's love of jazz caused him to drift away from the confines of popular music. "There is no point of being in that world if you want to do something creative."

Hunter left Franti's band and formed his first trio with ex-Primus drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Dave Ellis. As a headliner, Hunter has always been remarkably humble about both his position at center stage and his record receipts. "I am just not going to sell a lot of records. That's a fact. I am not in it to win it, I am in it to stay in it."

To that end, Hunter spends at least six months out on the road each year. Despite the rigor of his schedule, he's always been sure that "having a gig sure as hell beat working in an office-furniture warehouse."

After spending the earlier part of this decade working in a quintet, Hunter has come full circle in the last two years and is again working with a trio--this time with John Ellis on saxophones and Derrek Phillips on percussion. "It picks up from where I left off, but it's much further along."

Early in his career, Hunter tried to conquer every note in the scale, weaving spidery chromatic lines through post-bop changes in tunes like "Elbo Room" and "Rhythm Comes in 12 Tones." Recent work has focused more on group synergy and songwriting rather than virtuosity.

"I can't wank!" he chuckles. "My wanking is all in stuff like rhythmic counterpoint. I will never be a famous guitar player because none of the stuff that I do now is really exciting in an overt kind of way."

Although he's played High Sierra repeatedly, Hunter also made a conscious decision to limit appearances in jam band settings. "The audience is at their point of evolution where they can only receive a small percentage of what you can do musically, which is fine, ... but I couldn't do it all the time."

His latest CD, Friends Seen and Unseen, covers a variety of musical wavelengths including South African marabi and almost-free jazz. Hunter instrumentally weighs in on the war on terror with "Running in Fear From Imaginary Assailants" and sends a shoutout to Mahatma on "Eleven Bars for Gandhi."

While the press tries to find the proper words to describe his sound, Hunter is busy making it better, no matter what the venue. After all, he states, "it's better to define yourself and bring your own definition of yourself, rather than redefine yourself depending on whatever milieu you happen to be playing in."

Charlie Hunter plays Monday, Dec. 12 at 7 and 9pm at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; tickets $20/adv, $23/door. (www.kuumbwajazz.org; 831.427.2227)

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From the December 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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