For Charlie Hunter, the past ten years have been a long journey in the music industry as well as the jazz world. After emerging with Michael Franti and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1992, Hunter released his own trio’s first jazz album in 1993, Charlie Hunter Trio, under Primus bassist Les Claypool’s Prawn Song label. This album, along with his subsequent releases under Blue Note Records and Ropeadope, brought Hunter’s unique jazz to the forefront, discernable not only by the audible array of influences in the music itself, but by the distinct role Hunter plays in his groups. Hunter plays a modified eight-string guitar, playing the bass lines and the guitar parts at the same time. Often, Hunter backs his own guitar solos with bass lines, resulting in a two-part harmony that can be heard nowhere else.
The legendary guitarist appeared Tuesday night at the local bar SOhO in downtown Santa Barbara, alongside his quintet in support of his first release under his new label, Right Now Move. Hunter cited budgetary cuts, among other reasons, for making the switch from Blue Note, a major jazz label, to Ropeadope. “I just decided it was time for me to get out of the corporate music world and go with a smaller label that was more in tune with my values and with what I was trying to do,” Hunter explained.
Not only is the record his first with Ropeadope, it is also the first with his new quintet. Three of the five musicians on the record appeared at SOhO (Hunter, Derek Phillips on drums and John Ellis on tenor sax and bass clarinet), while Alan Ferber and Ron Miles filled in on the trombone and trumpet, respectively.
The group sounded much different from Hunter’s quartet on his last album or his trio from several years ago, mostly due to stronger horn support. When asked to compare the new quintet’s sound to the two-percussionist quartet from his last album, Hunter said, “This group is much more centered on the jazz thing.”
Throughout the night, Hunter played only with Derek Phillips, though the duo could easily be mistaken for three. The horn section utilized call and response techniques while taking turns soloing, and all players used the full ranges of their instruments well. During one solo, John Ellis got some respectful nods from other musicians and the crowd alike for playing in the upper register of the bass clarinet.
The biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was “John’s Shuffle,” a song where Hunter set the crowd up, but Phillips knocked them down. The song developed and Hunter stepped back, allowing the horns and Phillips to interact by playing much like a New Orleans brass band. The horns and the rhythm were clicking on all cylinders, and Hunter joined in, making the groove and the style his own. At this point, everyone else stopped and Hunter began a two-part groove with the bass and the lead. Then, instead of using the sticks, Phillips opted to grab a microphone and beatbox instead.
The night closed with an incredible encore, in which opted to play the pandeiro, a tambourine-like instrument with a rotating head and slightly drier jingles. Hunter laid down the beats while Phillips beatboxed again, and the horns improvised on the spot. The five left the standing room-only crowd wanting more, despite having stood for roughly two and a half hours. Hunter proved himself as not only as a skilled musician, but one able to be inclusive of a greatly varied audience. From Hiphoprisy to Blue Note to Ropeadope, Hunter remains an immensely gifted musician able to make a lasting imprint on jazz aficionados and beat lovers alike.