Taken from Nashville Scene (Feb 15, 2018)
Charlie Hunter Keeps Searching for the Groove
Ahead of two sets at Rudy’s Jazz Room, the jazz guitarist discusses his passion for new sounds — despite political interference
by Ron Wynn
When a piece of music stands out as unique and intriguing to Charlie Hunter, that’s saying something. Innovative instrumentation and inspired collaborations have characterized his exemplary career of more than 25 years as a guitarist, bandleader and composer. In 1992, he made his initial impact on popular music playing seven-string guitar and organ with Michael Franti’s group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The next year, Hunter released his debut as a bandleader, Charlie Hunter Trio, with saxophonist Dave Ellis and drummer Jay Lane.
Since then, Hunter has exhibited dazzling experimental flamboyance in both his performance and composition, exploring idioms from funk to jazz fusion, while working with artists as diverse as Norah Jones, John Mayer, Dionne Farris and Mos Def. The recording of “The Root” for D’Angelo’s 2000 LP Voodoo remains one of his favorite sessions. “I grew up playing funk and soul, but I still had to really get myself together to stay with those guys,” Hunter tells the Scene by phone. “That music was something else.”
But Hunter’s plans for yet another exciting collaboration recently ran afoul of contemporary politics. He’d planned for his 2018 tour (which includes two sets Friday night in Nashville at Rudy’s Jazz Room) to spotlight brilliant 20-year-old Mexican guitarist-vocalist Silvana Estrada, with whom he worked on her 2017 album Lo Sagrado. The record blends influences from multiple Mexican folk traditions with approaches from jazz, which she has studied extensively. Multiple attempts to secure clearance for Estrada to enter the U.S. with a P-3 visa — a special classification for performers whose material is culturally unique — were rejected.
“Stuff happens, but it is really disappointing,” Hunter says. “It’s the second time that we’ve tried to get her a visa to appear in this country, and it’s a shame. She doesn’t want to leave Mexico permanently and move to America. All she wants is to appear with us on a series of shows. It’s really an example of how bad xenophobia and anti-immigrant feelings are running in some circles. They didn’t really even give us a good reason for turning down the request. We showed that she was a compelling talent, and we made it clear she would be returning to Mexico after the tour, and that she loves her country and had no interest in permanent relocation. It’s just a shame, but we’re moving on, and hopefully at some point in the future, she can join us.”
With luck, Estrada will be able to join Hunter sooner rather than later, since her music is an excellent complement to his most recent work. His 2016 album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth offers spare, wiry arrangements that draw heavily on blues, soul and funk, a sound toward which Hunter has been moving for several years. Prior to his 1995 record Bing! Bing! Bing!, he acquired a custom-built eight-string guitar, which (along with effects pedals) helped him achieve the sonic characteristics of organists like Larry Young, whose style was as strong an influence on Hunter as guitarists like Joe Pass. In 2006, Hunter removed one of his guitars’ bass strings and tuned those that remained up a half-step. The result was a more dynamic sound both in the lead lines and answering chords.
“I’d pretty much played out everything that I could say,” Hunter says regarding the change. “I wanted to really get more into the blues, get a more soulful sound than I had been getting with the eight-string, even though I really enjoyed a lot of what we were doing with it for a long time. But I overdid it, I think I got too fancy on it, and had gotten away from more intimate playing.”
While he has made a host of memorable albums for such labels as Blue Note, Ropeadope and GroundUP, Hunter is in the process of setting up shop to release records himself. To that end, Everybody Has a Plan and several of his other releases can be obtained directly on his website, and he’s spearheading the vinyl reissue of classic albums from his catalog going back to the ’90s.
“The history of music in this country is that musicians are the last people to get paid, and that hasn’t changed today with streaming,” says Hunter. “It’s really now a case of getting the music to the people who want it and enjoy it, and that’s what we are trying to do with the website. We also bring a lot of albums to the gigs with us.”
When asked about his future plans, Hunter keeps his focus on looking for new territory to explore. “I have spent my whole professional life enjoying and playing all kinds of music,” he says. “The challenge remains keeping things fresh and finding new things to say.”