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Cirque Du Soleil
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Cover Story [Issue # 3 ]
Charlie Hunter: Bridging Brain With Booty

By Ken Micallef

Right Now Move ( CD Ropeadope )
Listen to Charlie Hunter on the ONE WAY CD 3

“Oakland,” from Charlie Hunter’s latest album, Right Now Move, is the kind of instrumental tour de force that makes musicians cry and causes fans to gasp for breath.

Over a pugnacious second line groove, a steamy, clambake of a melody is greased and filleted via harmonica, horns, drums and Hunter’s secret weapon, the 8-string hybrid guitar. Simultaneously playing bass and melody, Hunter pops a million questions in the song’s brief three-minute timeframe. Melodies crawl like a lazy June bugs while bass lines bubble like a hyperactive whiz kid chalking up geometry equations. Hunter darts between strings with breathtaking agility, dropping bass anecdotes and curlicue melodic phrases. Right Now Move is a righteous good time of funky third world inspired music.

Inventing a new instrument would signal victory for most musicians, but Charlie Hunter has crossbred more than gut wire and technique in his search for musical satisfaction. With nine albums under his belt, the latest on indie label Ropeadope, Hunter’s style is American as tanks and taters but as pan global as humus paste, Cuban cigars and African diamonds.
"I view it all as one thing," says Hunter from his Montclair, New Jersey home. "They’re new world versions of the original rhythms. New Orleans; Salvador and Bahia; Havana and Cuba, those are the three new world jumping-off places for the three different versions of African music. One became jazz; one became Cuban son, changui and charango; the other became Brazilian samba, capoera and forre. All that music is linked by an African clave of some kind whether it is a swing beat, a funk beat, a New Orleans beat, a samba beat or 3/2 rumba clave. It’s all got a common heritage, like all human beings on the planet do.”
Hunter has recorded duo, trio, and quartet formats; Right Now Move is the Hunter polyglot aided by harmonica master Gregoire Moret, drummer Derrek Phillips, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes (formerly of the Jazz Passengers), and tenor saxophonist John Phillips. Hunter transforms this somewhat traditional jazz lineup into a world-beating beast that executes Oakland strut funk and African and Latin rhythms with equal ease. His band sounds like a single cell organism on the verge of musical ecstasy and cross-conceptual orgasm. Hunter’s ace in the hole is Moret, who lends each track a smoky romance missing in most modern music.

“Gregoire has really developed the chromatic harmonica to a different level. It blends really great with the trombone and the tenor. I wanted to have a horn section that was different, that was sonically not an Art Blakey sound. I love that, but I felt I wanted to try something a little different.”
Hunter’s most sensuous album to date, Right Now Move kicks off with the nearly Latin shuffle of “Mestra Tata,” bucks into a Los Lobos’ groove with “Changui,” goes mad with New Orleans street flavor on “Whoop-Ass,” catches African soukous sweetness with “Mali,” and wails like a band of charmed burlesque conjurers for “Le Bateau Ivre.”

“When I was with my band in San Paolo, Brazil,” recalls Hunter, “we went to a music shop to look for pandeiros [Brazilian tambourine] and other instruments. Like all music shops, this one had a bulletin board with things posted on it. There was an ad for someone named Mestre Tata who taught Brazilian percussion instruments. The owner of the shop told us that Mestre Tata was right upstairs! So we went up to his studio and had an hour-long percussion lesson with this 60 year-old percussion master. That song was inspired by that experience.
“ ’Oakland’ is a tribute to the East Bay Area where I grew up,” he continues. “We don't play this ‘dumb-dumb funk’ very often because it's so hard to pull off. But Derrick knows how to play this stuff the right way because he’s from Oakland. ‘Changui’ is a style of Cuban street music that I'm really into. ‘Mali’ started out as a tribute to the music of Mali, but then my jazz harmony concept reared its ugly head and changed this piece into an entirely different thing. ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ is the title of a poem by French Poet Arthur Rimbaud. It means ‘The Drunken Boat’ and I thought this tune sounded like that: Just a goofy little tune that bobs along.”

Charlie Hunter has lived all over, from the San Francisco Bay area to Brooklyn to New Jersey. And while some think of his bastard jazz as a jam band junket, Hunter’s a student of all styles.
“When I moved to New York I got into this whole Nuyorican thing. I really identify with that music. It has the Cuban clave bass, but also a lot of the American soul and blues and jazz influence. When I listen to Eddie Palmieri or Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache band or Tito Puente, all that stuff hits me in a very special way. I was playing with [drummer] Adam Cruz - his dad is famous timbale player Ray Cruz - he really schooled me on a lot of those rhythms. And I love Brazilian music as well.”

Right Now Move’s polyglot styles and sounds could fall under the banner of world music, but it’s really American music. Just as the slaves in Congo Square altered European marches into the second line rhythms of New Orleans and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker fused Afro Cuban rhythms with bebop, Hunter is seeking a contemporary fusion.
“I was in Sao Paolo for a week,” he recalls. “We went around, saw samba de pagodge where they sit in a circle playing samba. I took some salsa lessons down there too. And I have always listened to African music like music from Mali and Oumou Sangare and Ali Farke Toure and Neba Solo. Neba Solo is an incredible baliphone ensemble. I also like a lot of the soukous music from Zaire, or what is now Republic of the Congo.”

As his music jumps styles like a crocodile rolling a doomed tourist, Charlie Hunter lays claim to a most unusual audience. Lazy critics like to lump him into the jam band trend, while jazzbos note his tonal similarity to grizzled jazz guitarist John Scofield. But Hunter says his audience spans ages, lifestyles and locales. He takes a renegade approach to finding and satisfying that audience, doing whatever is necessary to get the music into their hands. Playing tiny clubs and college radio shows, even offering his music free of charge on Kazaa and other file sharing websites is okay by Charlie.
“I believe in doing it all for free,” he says. “For someone like me who is at the very bottom of the ladder, we don’t even notice it when we fall off the ladder. The majority of my living is made off of live performance. It is important for me to sell records and CDs do sound better than MP3s, for sure. But ultimately, it is more important for me that people know about the music I am making and that they have access to it in any way, shape or form.”

Hunter knows the value of guerilla marketing; he also understands the role of the independent label versus the corporate monstrosity. Formerly on Blue Note, a jazz label that you might suspect to be run like an indie, Hunter has found a happier home on New York’s Ropeadope Records. He now makes music that he describes as “three dimensional.”
“I think musicians who work within the corporate world can make good music and have an impact, take my friend Norah Jones, for instance. But that is very rare. Ultimately those people end up becoming two-dimensional, they become so removed from their audience and so involved in the culture of corporatization and the video culture that they can really no longer relate to their audience on that three dimensional human level. If you go to any country outside the US, music is a really necessary part of life that is not corporatized. It is a cultural part of life whether it is a griot or mariachis. Like Art Blakey said, ‘It brushes the dust off of your workaday week.’ I want that connection with the audience.”

Hunter takes a pause and puts down the receiver. Bidding farewell to some guests, he can be overheard saying, “Hey man, it’s all good.”

“When all the trappings are gone,” he says, returning to the phone, “when there is no MTV, no sugar cereal to sell, what are you left with as a person? You should be happy with your music whether you are penniless or making millions. You should be happy with the fundamental reality of what you are doing.”

Right Now Move

Listen to (Charlie Hunter) on the ONE WAY CD

Bridging Brain With Booty Charlie Hunter Right Now Move

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