Arts Listings

Charlie Hunter Home for Annual Holiday Visit

By Galen Babb, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 12, 2006

Today (Tuesday) marks the return of Berkeley’s Charlie Hunter, one of the most innovative and entertaining performers in jazz, to Yoshi’s for six shows. For many years a regular on the Bay Area club scene, the guitarist, currently based in New York, will bring his trio back to the East Bay for his annual winter pilgrimage. 

Like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock before him, Hunter never stands still long enough to be easily labeled, generating a diverse catalogue of music. 

He graduated from Berkeley High School, having played in the school’s renowned jazz band that has nurtured the talents of several other jazz greats, including saxophonists Joshua Redman and Peter Apfelbaum, and later worked as a guitar teacher for Subway Guitars on Cedar Street in Berkeley.  

After spending some time performing as a street musician in Europe, Hunter formed an acclaimed trio in 1992 with another local talent, tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, and drummer Jay Lane, an original member of Primus. 

Hunter also records with the popular funk-infused band Garage A Trois, and while he was living in the Bay Area he was known for his performances with a guitar-based band TJ Kirk, a guitar band whose name is derived from the name of jazz multi-instrumentalist Rashaan Roland Kirk and from the first initials of Thelonious Monk and James Brown. 

Hunter plays an eight-string guitar rather than six, enabling him to play his own bass lines while soloing. This unusual style creates a sound that has been compared to a Hammond B Organ. And his repertoire is vast; throughout his career he has brought his vision to a wide array of genres, including a cover version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and a startling remake of Bob Marley’s album Natty Dread.  

Performing popular pieces and standards has long been a practice in jazz, but Hunter doesn’t merely adapt each piece to a jazz signature, but rather imbibes each work with the spirit of the original, in the process creating a new take on old material that can stand on its own. 

Hunter manages to perform Nirvana’s simple grunge rock hit with the sophistication and swing of jazz without losing its intensity, and pays homage to one of the most revered of reggae albums without ever using a reggae beat. 

Hunter’s collaboraters also constitute a diverse group. He has performed as a duo with avant-garde percussionist Leon Parker, recorded with reggae guitar greats Ernest Ranglin and Chinna Smith and opened for the likes of J.J. Cale and U2. And in a 2001 appearance at Yoshi’s, Hunter brought a special surprise guest, a little-known singer named Norah Jones, who was on the brink of stardom with the release of her debut album Come Away With Me. 

But despite his skills as a guitarist, it is as a composer, arranger and bandleader that Hunter excels. Whether it’s the mellow sounds of “No Woman No Cry” that opens with a quote from “Tennesee Waltz” before melting into Marley’s famous melody or whether it’s “Two for Bleu” with its conga percussion underneath Hunter’s guitar and Apfelbaum’s Parisian nightclub-sounding sax, Hunter’s music is always eclectic and imaginative. 

Hunter has been bringing his sound to Yoshi’s every December since 2000. Yoshi’s Artistic Director Peter Williams explains, “He likes it because he gets to visit with friends and family for the holidays, and we like it because he is a great artist and it is a big time of year for us.” 

Hunter will be performing this month with his new trio, consisting of piano player Erik Deutsch and drummer Simon Lott. Williams admits that he hasn’t heard Hunter’s new lineup, and in the six years that they have been booking him, Hunter has never brought a trio centered around keyboards rather than saxophone. 

“But that is the great thing about Charlie,” says Williams. “He is always looking at doing new things, and it’s always great.” 


The Charlie Hunter Trio 

performs Tuesday through Sunday at Yoshis. $10-$18. 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. 238-9200.