It took decades of dogged determination for Hunter to fine-tune his concept, starting on drums, then playing 6-string, and then working as a bassist on the streets of Europe before finding his voice on hybrid 8- and 7-string guitars.
When you improvise, do you conceive of music as independent horizontal lines or as vertical chunks? What are your secrets to creating the illusion of multiple instruments?
You have to deal with the time, first and foremost. The groove is what’ll get you through everything else. So as long as you really have the time going, then you can get enough note combinations down to pick and choose from at any moment. You need to have realistic expectations of the instrument as well. You’re never going to have the linear beauty of a horn on it—that’s not going to happen. Many guitarists are informed by horn-like concepts, but in a lot of ways, that’s working against the instrument. You’re not going to have the harmonic complexity of a keyboard instrument, either.
But the thing you can do on guitar that’s so cool is occupy a certain space between linear and rhythmic playing where all this vernacular comes out. You can hear it in everything from bossa nova to country blues—in players like Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake, or the music of Joseph Spence and, later on, Joe Pass, Tuck Andress, and Ben Lacy. Even Wes Montgomery occupies that exciting territory.
Getting back to your question, because of the nature of the instrument, I have to develop things in a real non-linear way. The contrapuntal stuff comes together when the groove lets it happen. Another thing is that on guitar you want to shred, and that makes you tend to want to play opportunistically. But to make something happen that’s largely musical on my instrument, you have to go against that opportunistic way of playing. You have to keep a groove going as well as you can and take it from there.
You’re known for your impeccable sense of time. Did it come naturally to you or is it something that has required a lot of practice and maintenance?
I think it’s something anyone can work on, especially if you have a head start. Growing up in an environment where there was so much rhythmic music, I did have a head start. You can certainly develop killer rhythmic chops, but it can be a lot of work. Like anything else you do, the more the better—not just by working with a metronome, but by playing with people who are much better than you.
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth is a great title for a record. Is it a specific reference, or something random?
It’s just a Mike Tyson quote that I liked. I thought, “Why not use it as the title for a record?”
Are you a boxing fan?
You know, I did it for a while when I was a kid—quite terribly. I’ve got a lot of respect for boxers, but I’m not really much of a fan anymore. I’m more of a baseball fan, to be totally honest.
Talk about the overall strategy behind the record—and what it was like to work with your co-conspirators.
The idea behind the record was that you have these guys with a lot of jazz information, but we decided to think of the ensemble more in terms of a blues band with improvisers in it. Bobby Previte and I go back a long ways, and Curtis Fowlkes and I do as well. Kirk Knuffke is a new musical acquaintance. I just love his playing and where he’s coming from musically. I really wanted a brass sound for this album, and it worked. It’s got that certain sound and sensibility. I called the right people, and it turned out pretty darn good, I gotta say [laughs].
“Big Bill’s Blues” has a lovely unaccompanied intro on which you really delve deeply into the blues. Talk about what the blues means to you.
The blues is really the foundation for everything I do. Coming up in the Bay Area, I was exposed to so much music with blues roots—soul, funk, and R&B—and now it’s in my musical DNA. The blues is really what the guitar is all about, for me.
On tracks like “(Looks Like) Somebody Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication” you can hear a hint of outside playing. Where does this come from?
So much of that comes from listening to people like Lester Bowie and Arthur Blythe—that kind of AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] sensibility. And I guess maybe it just comes down to trying to get as much vocabulary together as you can—vocabulary you get from listening to those records and playing with those people, which just kind of creeps into your music.
Though the album was cut in a studio, it has a live vibe. How did you record it?
We set up in a big-ass room in a really nice studio that used to be a church in Hudson, New York, and we just played. That was it.
So there weren’t any overdubs or edits?
I think on one song maybe there’s an edit in terms of we liked the head better on one take and the body of it on another, but that’s about it. I don’t even think there were any fixes on it—at least I don’t remember any.
And you were all in one room?
Yep, we were all in one room. That’s the way to go—by far my favorite way to record. When you spend the majority of your time playing live and jelling with the musicians in your group, then you go into a studio and do what works best for the engineer, every little move you do to separate the instruments hinders your ability to communicate with other musicians and takes away incrementally from the vibe. I’m happy to sacrifice fidelity for vibe any time.
Watch Charlie Hunter and his studio band recording “No Money No Honey” for his new album, Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth. This performance perfectly captures the heart of his style, as he alternately drives and rides the groove while playing clean melodies and solos on his Traugott 7-string hybrid. Hunter’s first solo, at a little over a minute in, is stone blues.