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Where Coltrane Meets Cobain

Guitarist Charlie Hunter is at the forefront of a burgeoning, pop-influenced hybrid sound that is turning Generation X-ers on to improvised music.

May 05, 1996|Bill Kohlhaase | Bill Kohlhaase writes about jazz for Calendar

The crowd at Santa Monica's Alligator Lounge on a recent Friday night looked nothing like the usual jazz audience. Long hair, flannel shirts, shaved heads and Kurt Cobain-style facial hair dominated a sold-out assemblage of fans and the curious that had gathered in the lowbrow space known for presenting the hip and experimental to hear Bay Area guitarist Charlie Hunter.

Sporting a neatly trimmed beard, baggy jeans, a T-shirt and an unusual eight-string guitar, Hunter promised them that his quartet was there to "put the jazz back into jazz."

What he meant by that was soon apparent. Hunter, who plays both bass and lead on his instrument, drummer Scott Amendola and saxophonists Calder Spanier and Kenny Brook began to move through a variety of grooves and moods, all based on the familiar themes and improvisation template of jazz. Around these themes, the foursome generated passages of spontaneous interplay and long, spirited improvisations. Rhythm was central.

Before the evening was over, Hunter had refashioned three Bob Marley tunes in walk, ballad and funk rhythms. He turned the Beatles' "Fixing a Hole" from the "Sgt. Pepper" album into a driving groove anthem. He introduced the varied riffs of a mythical dance craze--the Shango--that he invented for a forthcoming album. But calls from the youthfully hip club-goers for Hunter's cover of Nirvana's "Come as You Are," heard on his first Blue Note recording, went unanswered.

After the show, there was much talk about what to call Hunter's brand of instrumental music. Terms including "acid jazz," "grunge jazz" and "avant-rock jazz" were considered. While each term had its detractors, everyone agreed that the music was, indeed, jazz.

But it's not the jazz of your father's generation. Hunter and company are introducing a new, mostly pre-30-year-old audience to the joys of improvised music by developing their sound around a rock, soul and roots music background, then taking it somewhere fresh.

Hunter is the most visible figure of this new jazz-pop hybrid, a loose family that includes New York-based keyboard combo Medeski, Martin and Wood, contemporary ensemble Lost Tribe and a host of serious acid jazz groups, including the Broun Felinis.

Based on the improvisational spirit of jazz and the rhythmic flesh of funk and soul, this music's nearest relations include eclectic guitarists Bill Frisell and David Torn, the new-thing jazz ensembles of percussionists Bob Moses and Bobby Previte as well as such funk-rock and dance-jam bands as Phish.

But there's jazz in the movement's family tree as well. Traces of Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton and Larry Young's R&B-fired organ trios as well as the jazz-funk school led by pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Lee Morgan and others can be heard. The fusion revolution of the early '70s is the movement's half brother gone bad.

"We know the lineage of jazz," says Hunter, 28, "and we're completely in debt to it. We've built the foundation of our music on John Coltrane, on Charlie Parker, on Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk, all the way back through Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to the turn of the century. We want people to know that this is the music that means the most to us.

"But we also want our audience to know that we're from the twentysomething generation, that we share the same experiences as a lot of people our age. That's what we want to communicate; that's what inspires us."


Chris Douridas, the host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM (89.9), says that groups like Hunter's and Medeski, Martin and Wood are rooted in the classics, "but they disguise it in such a way that it has a freshness and originality that a younger audience can tap into and call their own. They attract people from pop and alternative rock that wouldn't necessarily come across [jazz organist] Jimmy Smith."

"[Hunter's] playing to a Lollapalooza crowd," says one of the Alligator crowd's few members over 40, a longtime rock roadie and jazz fan, "but he's really got that instrumental thing happening."

Indeed, Hunter's group has appeared on the Lollapalooza alternative stage as well as in clubs around the nation. While factions of the jazz audience have embraced his music, most of his following has been built mostly from raids on the alternative rock audience.

His first album for Blue Note, "Bing, Bing, Bing!" released last June, has shipped 50,000 units, a remarkable figure considering that many established jazz artists often sell only 15,000 to 25,000 units. Blue Note's director of sales, Saul Shapiro, attributes this success to the support of college-based FM stations and Hunter's commitment to frequent touring. (The guitarist is also the moving force behind the jazz-and-soul tribute band T.J. Kirk that records for Warner Bros.)

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