While 28-year-old Charlie Hunter seems to always be on the verge of cracking a joke, he takes his role as a jazz musician seriously. "It's culturally the duty of the younger generation to help the music evolve. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't." There's no punch line, even though you expect one from the eight-string guitarist and bandleader who not only delivers ebullient, groove-oriented tunes but also infuses the musical proceedings with a hefty dose of humor. All of which brings up Hunter's superb new recording, Ready...Set...Shango!, produced by Lee Townsend, whose credits include Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Jerry Granelli, T.J. Kirk and Rinde Eckert. This is Hunter's second album for Blue Note and third solo outing overall.
For the latest release, which features dragsters in the cover in lieu of a band photo, Hunter expands his trio to a quartet and follows up last year's remarkable Bing, Bing, Bing! (also produced by Townsend) with even more exclamatory rhythmic energy. "The groove is there, but it's more jazz-oriented this time," he says during a short break from working under the hood of his powder blue 1966 Ford Mustang at his house in Berkeley, California. "It has a much looser feel that anything we've recorded so far. For this album, we wanted to emulate the stuff Cannonball Adderley, Big John Patton and Eddie Harris were doing back in the '60s but update it with a modern twist. It's a pre-funk funk record with no back beat." Tired of having his style of music be tagged with such inaccurate labels as acid jazz and hip-bop, Hunter adds, "Not we're into antacid jazz, which is a snappy way of saying this an anti-acid jazz album." Citing a need to more into new musical territory that afforded more ensemble possibilities, Hunter enlisted the services of alto saxophonist Calder Spanier as the fourth member of his group. "I had done the trio thing long enough. I needed to take the next step. I either wanted to add a trumpeter or an alto sax guy. When Calder came to town, I knew he'd be perfect." Hunter met Spanier, the son of Canadian trumpeter Herbie Spanier, in Montreal several years ago and later reconnected with him on the streets of Europe where both were gigging for spare change in the late '80s. "He is so incredible, he's a natural. We played in various groups together in Europe. He brings to this band a great sound, solos and tunes as well as slapstick humor."
Spanier joins longtime Hunter associate Dave Ellis, who blew gusts of tenor saxophone beauty on the two previous trio albums and, in the guitarist's own estimation, "plays his ass off" on the new recording. Hunter and Ellis met in elementary school in Berkeley. They continued to be friends during their high school years even though they travelled in different social circles--Ellis participating as first chair tenor in a prestigious Berkeley High School jazz orchestra (which schooled over the years such other jazz all-stars as David Murray, Benny Green and Joshua Redman) and Hunter gigging with various bar bands that played reggae, rockabilly and Motown covers. Hunter notes, "We did play together occasionally. As a matter of fact, I think Dave still has blackmail tapes." But it wasn't until Hunter quit Michael Franti and Rono Tse's short-lived, but constantly-touring agit-rap group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to form his own jazz trio that he and Ellis linked up for serious jazz sessions.
(Shortly after recording Ready...Set...Shango!, Ellis left Hunter's band on amiable terms to pursue his own solo career. Tenor saxophonist Kenny Brooks, from hip-bop San Francisco band Alphabet Soup, has answered the call and will hit the road throughout the rest of the year in support of Hunter's new album. Hunter, who played three years ago with Brooks every Friday night at the Up & Down Club -- the pioneering new jazz venue in the hip SoMa district of San Francisco -- calls him "the baddest tenor player in the Bay Area. You look up the work tenor saxophone in the dictionary and there's a picture of Kenny Brooks.")
Rounding out Hunter's quartet is drummer Scott Amendola, who makes his recording debut in Hunter's jazz band. But he's certainly no stranger. Amendola, who lays down the rhythms in the guitarists high-voltage jazz-funk-rock group, Warner Brothers recording artists T.J. Kirk, joined the trio last year shortly after the recording of Bing, Bing, Bing! Of Amendola, hunter says, "He's super light and quick and he brings action-packer percussion adventure to the set. He has an unstoppable attitude toward everything. He has too much inspiration to let anything get in his path. He's always pushing the rest of the band to the limit."
As for Hunter himself, he's experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the last couple of years. In addition to scoring two major label recording deals, he's been on the road constantly, playing his distinctive eight-string guitar (he plays bass and lead lines simultaneously) on tours across North America, Europe and Australia. He also garnered the highest number of 1996 BAMMIE nominations (seven), including best Bay Area band, best jazz album and best guitarist. Fellow Bay Area guitarist, Henry Kaiser, commenting on Hunter in a recent Down Beat magazine Blindfold Test, calls his playing "phenomenal." Kaiser says, "He;s developer a style that's uniquely his own, within which he can male a strong musical statement... He's a funky original whose music is really special. It communicates to people." (Hunter undergoes the Blindfold Test himself in an upcoming issue of Down Beat.)
A Berkeley resident since he was eight, Hunter got his first guitar at age 12. A few years later the avid music listener was taking lessons with local rock guitarist Joe Satriani. However, it was a cultural atmosphere of the city that played the biggest role in his development as an artist. "Growing up in Berkeley, we were exposed to all kinds of music, from the Dead Kennedys and Parliament Funkadelic to Art Blakey," says Hunter whose soft-tones, but muscular music is steeped in jazz but also infused with hip hop, rock and funk influences. "In the Bay Area you have so many different cultured living together. It all gets semi-assimilated into a nonpolarized type of existence where hybridization of music is possible. There are so many genres and vibes to work with. That's what makes the music here so special."
Hunter says he's most influenced by his golden days of listening to music from the '60s to the mid '70s. He listened to everything then, regardless of genre boundaries. He loved the soul music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He went through a rock phase that made him a lifetime fan of Jimi Hendrix. And he still treasures the old blues records by Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Buddy Guy that his mother listened to. Add to that his jazz chops -- influenced by such musicians as guitarists Charlie Christian and Joe Pass, saxophonists Charlie Parker and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pianist Thelonious Monk and Hammond B3 organ aces Larry Young and Big John Patton -- and you get a roiling mix of sounds that Hunter organically cultivates into his own style of urban jazz. It's high-energy improvisationally-based music that has piqued the curiosity of the younger generation. As might be expected, the moxie-to-the-max Hunter doesn't fit the stereotype of your typical jazz musician. He prefers t-shirts and jeans to Armani suits (he vows to never take the stage in any clothes that rip or wrinkle easily); he sports a Woody the Woodpecker tattoo (although he cringes at its mention, chalking it up to youthful foolishness); he's a fan of the peculiar television program The X-Files (he's videotapes the entire series); and, instead of contemplating a career move to New York City, he's partial to the space and freedom of Bay Area living (he notes, "People say that California's laid back. That may be true, but I'm not laid back.").
Then, of course, there's Ready...Set...Shango! So, what exactly is shango? It's a dance, Hunter evasively replies. Well, not exactly a real dance, but a mythical one. But, he says with a mischievous gleam in his eyes and a wide smile, it has no steps. What? "Well, it's a bogus cultural dance movement that's a figment of my imagination," Hunter confesses. "It's done in an effort to hoodwink the record buying public into thinking there' actually a dance called the shango and that we're the sole purveyors of its music. It's also a ready-made social-cultural movement for the press to pick up on."
So, on your mark, get ready, here's the track-by-track- shango lowdown, according to Charlie:
"Ashby Man" -- Definitely a full tilt shango. It's a piece Calder and I wrote about this guy who hangs out every day on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley drinking beer. I mean, Every day. This is his song.
"Teabaggin'" -- This is one of Calder's compositions. I'd have to say this is more of a Latin shango.
Let's Get Medieval" -- This is not a shango of any type. It's based on a line from a movie I saw. I can't remember its name. My impression of this tune is that it sounds like a Little Richard 45 played at 33.
"Shango III" -- This is an impressionistic shango that takes its inspiration from the mid-'60s Miles Davis era. It's not an avant-shango.
"Dersu" -- Based on that Russo-Chinese film Dersu Uzala about that southern Siberian-Mongolian guy who befriends a Russian explorer. The music is based on a vamp that I ripped off from Big John Patton. It's played in 5/4 time and slowed down into a John Coltrane-like vamp.
"911" -- That's the short title of the number which has as its full name 'Disgruntles Employees Union No. 911.' It's a straight shango. Really, it's as Buick shango, which is not to be confused with a Cadillac shango.
"Shango...The Ballad" -- This is definitely a hoax. it's actually a duo tune that Scott and I have been playing for quite a while. We banged that out in the studio on the first or second take. We gave it this name when we decided to take the shango thing to an extreme.
"Thursday the 12th" -- This is the Cadillac shango because it's got that mojo-working vibe from Muddy Waters. But it's really a Caddie because it has a few extra chords in it which makes it a deluxe.
"Sutton" -- This is another of Calder's compositions. It has nothing to do with shango. It's just a jazz tune, We figured since we're recording for Blue Note, we had to have at least one jazz number so we could try to get into heavy rotation on jazz radio.