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Pluck You: Charlie Hunter added two extra strings to his guitar but claims he can't wank.

Strung Out

Charlie Hunter brings his trio back to the West Coast 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 to really develop your chops on the beast. Once you add two more strings, 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."

But all temporary frustration aside, Hunter is one of the world's greatest string instrumentalists, playing both bass and guitar at the same time while crafting intense polyrhythmic tunes and improvisations. But unlike most virtuosos, whose sense of good taste disappears once they learn the diminished scale, Hunter realized that "the more simple the technique, the better the music ends up sounding."

Hunter first hit the road with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but his career took off right around the time that he squeaked out of Berkeley High School. But despite his chair in Disposable's influential ensemble, Hunter's love of jazz dictated that he would quickly drift away from the confines of popular music. "There is no point of being in that world if you want to do something creative."

Choosing creativity over fame, Hunter formed his first trio with ex-Primus drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Dave Ellis. But while he has been the headliner throughout his long career, Hunter is 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."

For Hunter, "staying in it" means relentlessly touring and performing. Every year, he spends at least six months on the road, and he is keenly aware of the economic realities of being a traveling musician. Despite the ardor 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, in the last two years Hunter has come full circle and is once again working with a trio—this time featuring John Ellis on saxophones and Derrek Phillips on percussion. "It picks up from where I left off, but it's much further along."

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

"I can't wank!" he says with a chuckle. "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."

Another factor that has increased his overall musicality is a conscious decision to limit his appearances in jam-band settings. While he has graced the stage at High Sierra repeatedly, Hunter became bored with the musicality at jam-band shows. "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 release, Friends Seen and Unseen, sees Hunter and his trio playing both loosely and confidently through a number of different musical wavelengths, including South African marabi and almost-free jazz. They weigh in instrumentally on the war on terror with "Running in Fear From Imaginary Assailants" and send 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 are $23 at the door. (www.kuumbwajazz.org; 831.427.2227)

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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