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Taken from Jambands (Oct 15, 2023)

Charlie Hunter Goes SuperBlue Once Again

by John Patrick Gatta

SuperBlue coverart
SuperBlue coverart

Ever since he first arrived on the national scene in 1993, hybrid guitarist Charlie Hunter has constantly reassessed and reimagined his music. Starting with the eponymous Charlie Hunter Trio release featuring drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Dave Ellis, Hunter has blended his union of bass lines and guitar melodies while using seven, eight and now a six-string guitar.

Back in 2020, Hunter offered a mental rescue to two-time Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who was grounded at home as the pandemic shut down the touring industry. Hunter presented him with instrumental tracks accompanied by DJ Harrison on keyboards and Corey Fonville on drums. Elling then added melodies on top of what the threesome had recorded to create the self-titled debut of SuperBlue, which earned international praise as well as a 2022 Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

The collaboration between Hunter and Elling makes sense when you consider that both have ambitious, creative natures that never allowed their careers to become static.

After a covers EP followed by a live session EP, the musical teaming continues and remains inspired on SuperBlue's second full-length, The Iridescent Spree. The album reunites Hunter and Elling with Fonville and Harrison (both of jazz-funk fusion quintet Butcher Brown) for nine tracks that take the music in new, exciting directions - the booty shakin' funkiness of "Bounce It," covers of Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," Bob Dorough's "Naughty Number Nine" from "Schoolhouse Rock," Ron Sexsmith's "Right About Now" and a reimagining of Ornette Coleman's "Only the Lonely Woman" wherein Elling contributes new lyrics and his signature vocals to the 1959 instrumental while the drum rhythm relies on English breakbeat.

Discussing the SuperBlue project, Hunter said "It's going to go where it's going to go. Presumably, it'll change and grow again. I feel like there's still room to grow with this project."

I spoke with a jetlagged Hunter who recently arrived home after shows in Australia about SuperBlue, The Iridescent Spree, playing hybrid guitar, bluesman Blind Blake and the need to turn down some opportunities.


JPG: Let's start with the new album. I watched a video of SuperBlue's Atlanta show from last May, and Kurt said onstage that while he was isolated due to COVID you sent him instrumentals and told him to add melodies to it. Is that what happened and, if so, what made you think of getting vocals on it rather than just being a set of instrumentals?

CH: That was the whole point all along was that because it was COVID, me, Corey Fonville and DJ Harrison couldn't really get to where Kurt was, but I was not far from those guys. So, we got together and recorded a bunch of stuff. The intention was to make a record with Kurt. The intention all along was not to be an instrumental project but the intention was for it to be all along a thing with Kurt.

At that time that's how we did it. A lot of the songs we came up with these forms and grooves and sent them to Kurt to put lyrics on and melodies, and then some of them were already tunes, like the Carla Bley one that's on that first record. There's also a Wayne Shorter one and we just did our version of it.

Then, for the next stuff we did some of those things but Kurt was there for the new record, and we've done a bunch of a singles off it already, too.

JPG: What made you think of Kurt? I know you worked with him once in 2000.

CH: We've known each other forever, and we were signed to Blue Note. It was actually not me thinking of him. It was him and his manager, Brian, thinking of me because we were doing all these little COVID collaborations on Instagram-Kurt and I-and his manager was like, "Why don't we try to take this into the studio?"

JPG: You and Kurt did the first album plus a covers EP and The London Sessions EP...

CH: Yeah, we did a lot. A couple years ago, we had a run at Ronnie Scott's with these two great background singers and we decided to go into a studio there and film some and record some. That's where that [London Sessions] EP came from. Then, we had the EP with me and Nate Smith and Kurt where we basically went into the studio in one day and just did all that stuff. It's all live except Kurt added some background vocals after the fact.

JPG: Altogether it's been four releases, what is it about this collaboration that interests and inspires you?

CH: For one thing, Kurt is one of the baddest cats around in terms of vocalists of my generation. I have got to be honest. I just don't think there's a lot of people that can touch him. I know that's hyperbole but when you play with him night after night and he does his thing, you're like, "Alright, this is a bad motherfucker." I am more than happy to sit back with a great drummer and just groove behind him and let him do his thing. That to me is probably more gratifying than playing a bunch of silly solos.

JPG: That was cool about the Atlanta show, watching the band members and seeing the smile on your face. Any band when they're smiling at each other that is always a thrill for the audience to see.

CH: Oh yeah. It's always a good time.

JPG: I was going through old emails and finding your name mentioned for one recording after another. I have found tons of videos of you on YouTube playing this live show or session or other things. You don't seem to be someone who's ever wanting for work. So, I imagine you have to put x-amount of things to the side because you don't have the time now. What is it about SuperBlue that you're like, "This is what I'm focused on. I'm gonna have to turn this offer down or this other offer down."

CH: That's a great question, actually. You can only be in so many places at one time. There are lots of different things that I get offered. I have time to do, for instance, I've been producing and playing on a lot of records. There's a bunch of stuff that I've been releasing of other people's stuff that I produced or I played on. Nic Clark, I don't know if you know him, but I did a record with him. I did a record with a friend of mine, DaShawn Hickman and I produced a boleros record for my friend Maritzaida. I don't know if you're into boleros but she sings the living shit out of them. I didn't play on that, but I produced that one. Recently, there's a record by Candice Ivory. She's a legit blues singer, the real deal, and we made a great record that I play on and produce.

So, I have time to do a lot of this stuff. Then, of course, Victoria Victoria is a project that I've been working on a lot as well. We're in the studio all the time and I go on the road a little bit when I can.

The recording stuff I can do. I have time for that. It's the road stuff. The thing with SuperBlue is when you get to play as much as we do and you get to sit in the pocket on this stuff, there's just something about that. The audience gets into it, and when you're backing up a singer that's on the level that Kurt is night after night. That just never gets tired. Every night you're like, "Okay, I'm gonna be on my shit tonight."

JPG: The bolero albums I saw on your website. That and the other albums listed, are those on your label?

CH: Yeah. We have a little label that my wife runs. She does a really great job with it. It's called Side Hustle. We put a lot of stuff out on that. And, I have other little projects here and there but in terms of anything large, at the moment, I just don't have a ton of time.

JPG: As far as your past albums, you did a 20th anniversary remaster of Right Now Move on vinyl. My introduction to you encompasses around a dozen albums including your 1993 trio album with Jay Lane on drums and Dave Ellis on saxophone, who I really liked a lot when I heard him.

CH: Oh yeah. Dave's incredible.

JPG: I forgot Jay Lane was part of the Trio until I was doing research for this interview.

CH: Jay's my guy. We go way back. I mean, waaaaay back.

JPG: Did you play with him first or did Les play with him first?

CH: I've known Jay since I was 14, so I don't know. [Laughs.]

JPG: So, out of all your past releases, why Right Now Move? Why not a deluxe version or remaster of the Charlie Hunter Trio self-titled release or something else?

CH: The trio one, Les Claypool was super magnanimous and gave me back the rights to it [the Trio's debut came out on Claypool's Prawn Song label], but I didn't really know how to put it out. This was three years ago, and I gave it to Round Hill Music to put out. So, they're doing that one.

Right Now Move, it took me a long time to get the masters back for that, and it's the most requested one for me to put on vinyl of all the records that I had. When we got the masters back, I had forgotten that it was totally analog. So, my man Dave McNair remastered from the original analog tape. So, it's analog to analog. The LP, it's vinyl, it's the old shit, and his remasters are really great. So, we got the vinyl and that's why we re-released that.

JPG: On to the new album, The Iridescent Spree. Cool title.

CH: That's Kurt. Anything with words in it, he's on that.

JPG: He mentioned, in the Relix article about pushing matters from what's been done, and it is noticeable. It just seems like a stronger album, a more forceful album. Artistically, it seems that you're doing new and different things and you seem confident about it.

CH: So, you're talking about the difference between this record and the first one?

JPG: Yes.

CH: Well, big differences are, the first one we worked totally by the seat of our pants. We're like, "Alright. Let's see what happens. We're in COVID. Let's do this." That's how that one came about.

With the second one, you're talking about a band that's played together a lot and toured a bunch, and we also recorded at a place in Richmond, Virginia-Montrose Studios-with Adrian Olson who's an insane engineer and producer. His sounds, I just love what he does. That made a big, big difference. He's just killer. That was another aspect of it, too- sonically, the mix as well-and knowing from the beginning that that's what we were doing as opposed to recording in a few different places and mixing in a different place with different people involved. There's a certain continuity that he brought to everything.

JPG: Even rhythmically, there's the funkiness of "Bounce It," and then I noticed the drum rhythm on "Only the Lonely Woman" reminded me of the breakbeat of Roni Size.

CH: Yeah, basically the concept for that tune, it really was a duet between the drums and the vocals, and then my part and the keyboard part were accompanying that narrative between those two guys.

JPG: Those "two guys"-DJ Harrison and Corey Fonville-aren't with you on this current tour. You have Kenny Banks Jr. and Marcus Finnie.

CH: Corey and DJ, we did a whole European tour last month with them. But, they have a band called Butcher Brown. They're very busy with Butcher Brown and DJ has his own solo thing that he does, which is really incredible. If anyone happens to see him in your town, I would go immediately.

JPG: So, basically, you're bouncing between two other members whenever anybody's available?

CH: Pretty much. Sometimes, [drummer] Nate Smith does it but a lot of it has been Marcus and Kenny, and it's great. We have a great sound with that band. It's awesome fun. We just got back from Australia, Taiwan and Korea with that band, we just did that. They're the guys you saw in that live thing in Atlanta. DJ and Corey are on the London stuff.

JPG: I don't know if what I watched on YouTube is directly what made up The London Sessions release. It's the four of you and two female singers in a small room somewhere.

CH: Yeah, that's The London Sessions.

JPG: Were you in an actual studio or Ronnie Scott's when you did The London Sessions?

CH: It was a studio. I can't remember what the name of the place was but it was dope. It was a very very cool, old studio.

JPG: I view your playing in a funky jazz style. Then, I saw you do that Blind Blake cover on YouTube. I never really thought of you as an acoustic blues player. Maybe it's a gap in my sphere of knowledge of your overall career but I never really thought of you being that deep into the blues. I don't mean to be an ass about it.

CH: That's okay, that's a valid question. But let me ask you, what do you think of as the blues, some players who you think of as blues players?

JPG: I could go anywhere from Robert Johnson to Willie Dixon to Stevie Ray Vaughan...it bounces all over.

CH: Great. Okay. So, that music is the music that I was brought up on, all the real early stuff, even before Robert Johnson, going back to the '20s, which is where Blind Blake is from. That's the music that I came up on through my mom through what was going on at the time. That's a big part of the foundation of my playing.

The Blind Blake stuff was always something that I wanted to really learn, to figure out what he was doing because it was galling to me that there was this guy who lived 100 years ago who really played guitar better than most people today. [Laughs.]

It's unbelievable what he does on the guitar, and people had figured out aspects of his technique, little bits. They would play his songs-great artists would do it-but it wasn't really what he was doing.

So, I spent the last year, basically, getting up every day and trying to figure that out, and I figured it out. I didn't do it for my own ego or anything like that. I did it, well, because, of course, curiosity and always wanting to learn but also because I wanted to channel him so that I can say, "You think we're all so great but we're not because there was a man who lived a hundred years ago at a time, when that man, if he left his house, America basically wanted to kill him, and he played better than any of us are going to play." [Laughs.]

It all really works together. You should always be trying to learn these lessons when you can and incorporate it into what you do. And it has changed my playing quite a bit, definitely, made me realize what I need to work on and what I probably shouldn't be messing around with.

JPG I gotta say it just amazes me, for someone who doesn't play the guitar but has been watching and listening forever, your playing in general and when covering him is so effortless. Are you thinking at all of what you're doing or is it subconscious due to years of practice and performing? Watching you on videos it's as if you and the guitar are one. Some guitarists will sneak a peek at their fretboard to see if their fingers are where they want or do guitar face but not you. You just seem so relaxed while your hands are moving on the fretboard and strings.

CH: I appreciate that. I think you should know what you do on the instrument. You should be comfortable on it but, more importantly, you should be comfortable in the rhythm and the feel and your time. You should be more comfortable in your body first and you should be more comfortable playing to the drummer you're playing with before you even touch your instrument. You should be not thinking about you. You should be thinking about what the drummer's doing more than what you're doing. So, if you start playing shit and you're only thinking about what you're doing then you're making the drummer's life miserable, and the music is gonna suffer. That's my feeling about it anyway.

You really want to have or you should have a real internalization of your instrument and it's just hours and hours and hours of doing it. I know people who are great singers and they just started playing guitar, and it's hard because it takes thousands and thousands of hours doing this to get to a point where you feel comfortable not just on the instrument, not just in your sound and the music you're making, but really on the physicality of the instrument. It's also, a lot of the stuff I play, I don't play it to be for the reasons of connecting with the audience on a more superficial level with lots of flurries and stuff like that, but it's more to connect with the drums and whoever's singing, and to support that, and to bring the audience in and to really be a part of the quarter note that's going on with everything. That's just more important to me. If you don't have a real internalized feel for the instrument, you're not going to be able to get to that other place. The instrument is going to be in the way of you getting that kind of thing.

JPG: So, that means that you are someone who practices every day so that you don't have to think about playing, and you could focus more on the drummer or the vocalist or both?

CH: Good Lord! You've got to practice every damn day! Hell yes, you do! There's always shit I need to work on. The list of things I need to work on is way way longer than the list of things that I have pretty well down. It's a way longer list but you make your contribution how you can, and you're always practicing. It's more about being present than anything else. You just try to find a way to be present, as good as you can, and just try to keep that moving down the road.

JPG: The instruments that you've used over the years-hybrid guitars, the seven, the eight string and now the six string. Are there advantages creatively to be at six strings now? And it's three bass strings and three guitar strings, correct?

CH: Yeah, it's three bass, three guitar. The one I'm playing, I played for the last five or six years probably. I call it a Big Six because it definitely comes from the whole eight string, seven string thing.

What I like about this is the neck is a little wider, and the string spacing is wider so I can use heavier strings. And for being in the rhythm section, I love it.

It's my favorite thing so far and I never even play seven. Eight strings, I would have no idea what to do with it at this point of my life. The seven-string, it's just not something I do anymore. Then, I realized, "Wait a minute. This instrument is great for a duo thing. When I play duo with Scott Amendola, it's like, "Wow! This shit is great for that, too!"

I'm super happy with where this instrument is at the moment. If anyone's interested, the company is Hybrid Guitars Co. If you go to https://hybrid-guitars.com/, there's all the information about the instruments on the website. There's some interesting little tidbits there.

JPG: Last thing, because you did eight and seven strings, did you ever play the Chapman Stick, which Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) popularized?

CH: It's very different. I didn't like the idea of the tapping thing because I just love old school guitar approach to shit and bass approach where you really are picking the strings and connecting with the drummer on that level.

JPG: Were you always fingerpicking or did you use a guitar pick for a while?

CH: When I came up, I used a pick, and I can still play with a pick. If you can do fingerpicking you can play with a pick kind of thing. I'll use one if I do sessions for people on guitar. If it's something that requires that pick vibe, I definitely will use a pick.




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