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Bucking Tradition

Charlie Hunter's style on 8-string guitar stems from his rock and soul instincts.

August 04, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call Charlie Hunter a jazz guitarist, and it will only be a half-truth.

Yes, he's been signed to the Blue Note label for five years now, and he winds up in jazz magazines and polls. But he'll be the first to admit that jazz is just one ingredient in the soulful stew that is the Hunter sound.

His current tour, which brings Hunter to the Ventura Theatre on Tuesday, comes on the heels of his sixth and newest Blue Note release, called simply "Charlie Hunter."

The album is, in a sense, a continuation and extension of his previous release, a venturesome duet with percussionist Leon Parker.

This time out, he adds saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, trombonist Josh Roseman and two percussionists to the mix.

Bucking tradition is nothing new for the 33-year-old, who grew up and made his first splash in the Bay Area but moved to Brooklyn a few years back.

For one thing, Hunter's instrumental approach is as odd as his instrument. He plays a custom eight-string guitar made by Ralph Novak and handles bass lines, chords and melody lines in a "look ma, three hands" kind of scenario.

In a sense, Hunter's rock and soul instincts function as an extension of Blue Note's policy dating to the '50s, when it put out soul- and groove-lined jazz variations by Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Grant Green and others. More recently, Hunter's signing to the label came just as jazz guitar hero John Scofield was leaving.

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Hunter feels that his musical path is a common one for an electric guitarist.

"We don't start playing jazz stuff," he said. "We want to start playing because we want to play the Hendrix licks, or the Beatles songs, or the Albert King thing. That's why we start playing. Then we exhaust those possibilities and decide, 'Well, where do I go from here?' "

Where Hunter went, so went open-eared listeners. As a fledgling guitarist, Hunter's timing was right, as he began building a reputation in the early '80s, tapping into successive popular movements.

First, there was the "acid jazz" scene, in which his own group and the band TJ Kirk were strong players. These days, Hunter's music nicely suits the "jam band" scene, which includes acts like Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Phish.

The names change, but the goal remains the same. At root, it's all about the fine and rough art of establishing a groove and riding it.

"What else are you going to do?" Hunter asks jokingly.

"That's what I'm into doing naturally. That works for me. I didn't try to do that. . . . It's great if I get an audience."

He does, and it's an unusually diverse crowd, made up of people into jams, jazz and more. "I think what it really is is music people," he said. "They come from all different walks of life and age groups.

"A lot of it is people my age, in their early 30s, and people in their 20s and 40s. It's just a mixed bag.

"I get a percentage of the hippie audience, but I get the real hip hippies. I get the hippies who have moved on from the hippie music they used to listen to, and now they're exploring some other stuff, which is great."

DETAILS

Charlie Hunter, Tuesday, 8 p.m., at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St. in Ventura. Tickets are $20; 653-0721.

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