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Shangomania!

Charlie Hunter
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Coltrane meets Cobain: Charlie Hunter brings a post-punk sensibility to smooth '60s-style jazz grooves.

Guitarist Charlie Hunter aims at flannel-clad jazz fans

By Greg Cahill

I THINK ALL MUSICIANS are on a mission, at least the real dedicated ones are on a journey," says jazzman Charlie Hunter, who sports onstage an eight-string guitar and a wry smirk that hints he is harboring some deep secret. "I mean, I don't want to get all hippy-dippy, but the goal is to reach the spiritual center of whatever music you're searching for. In that search, for me, it's real important to bring in other people and to have it be a real honest scene in which the audience is also part of the music. So it's now, it's happening now!"

Taking a short break between sound check and a gig at a small Chapel Hill, N.C., nightclub, the 28-year-old Bay Area jazz phenom slips easily into a reflective mood while fielding yet another phone interview in a busy promotional tour. His latest album, Ready . . . Set . . . Shango! (Blue Note), echoes traces of soul-jazz organist Jimmy Smith as well as the funk-fueled grooves of Horace Silver and others. Guitar Player magazine recently raved about Hunter's newly expanded quartet and the "sexy smoky early-'60s vibe" evoked by the album. The Los Angeles Times has hailed Shango!--the follow-up to last year's remarkable Bing, Bing, Bing! (Blue Note)--for making Hunter "one of leaders of a burgeoning, pop-influenced hybrid sound that is turning Gen X-ers on to improvised music."

Yet Hunter, a Berkeley native who honed his jazz chops at the trendy Up & Down Club in San Francisco's SoMa District, is reluctant to stake his claim beside such innovative jazz players as saxophonist Steve Coleman, avant-garde bandleader Peter Apfelbaum, or the Downtown denizens of New York's celebrated Knitting Factory who are helping to reinvent improvisational jazz. "Peter [Apfelbaum] is way ahead of me--miles and miles and miles ahead," Hunter says modestly. "I'd say that the only people who are really doing what we're doing is [the New York­based keyboard combo] Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and they've been doing it longer, taking improvised music to the people."

As for his own innovative sound, "It's jazz music of some kind," he laughs. "It will all be changing in time because I'll be changing over time."

That may sound coy, but Hunter wants to thwart those who lump him in with the acid-jazz movement or whatever flavor-of-the-month is in vogue. "Well, that whole acid-jazz thing is going to wear thin pretty soon and it's never really applied to us," explains Hunter, who prefers to call his groove "antacid jazz."

And then there's that alternative rock thing. Hunter spent the late '80s playing guitar for the agit-rap group Disposable Heroes of the Hiphoprisy, but found the experience musically unrewarding. His jazz group has appeared on the Lollapalooza alternative music stage and routinely plays at rock clubs. Most recently, Hunter contributed a track to Primus chief Les Claypool's new solo album. "That's getting a lot of attention considering how mediocre my playing is on it," he quips. "I'm just not a six-string guitar player, but at least I try."

In his spare time, Hunter dabbles in a side project, a jazz and soul tribute band called T. J. Kirk, which is signed to Warner Bros.

But it's his eagerness to cover grunge songs that has tied him to the flannel shirt­and­pierced nose set. "I think that because we covered a Kurt Cobain song on the first Blue Note record, people have decided that we're really into alternative rock. Actually, Nirvana is probably the only alt-rock band that I know," he adds with a laugh, "but Cobain was a really good songwriter."

Does he identify with Alternative Nation? "Yeah, I think our music is an alternative to the suit-and-tie club that says you have to be well-to-do and super-intellectual to understand jazz music. We don't have that attitude. We play at places where people aren't interested in pigeonholing instrumental music."

So don't look for Hunter among the stylish, Italian-suited retro retread pack epitomized by Wynton Marsalis and the so-called young jazz lions. "That's just not where I'm at," he says. "I feel a real urgency in life and that's reflected in my music. It's my only creative outlet. It's the only avenue I have to scream about my life and what's happening in other people's world. It's my fail-safe antidote to the world."

Meanwhile, Hunter is bringing jazz to a crowd that might otherwise stray from it. "I'm very proud of the fact that our audience is very diverse," he says. "There are a lot of women who come to our shows. There are a lot of kids--and I mean teens and young adults--who bring their parents. And there are a lot of moms and dads who bring their kids. And that makes me feel like we're doing something right."


The Charlie Hunter Quartet performs Sunday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $10. 765-6665.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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