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Is That Jazz? 

From reggae to surf music, Jam Nation jazzer refreshes the genre

Jazz in the 21st century is largely viewed as a museum piece, a moribund genre that was once the preserve of gifted clowns (Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong) and moody, addled geniuses (Charlie "Yardbird" Parker), but is now overrun by smooth, easy-listening instrumentalists such as Kenny G. The charismatic, 60s-born jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter is one of few latter-day acolytes to re-contextualize this genre beyond the conservatory-and-club cloister in a way that resonates with everyday people. Through incessant touring that's made him something of a fixture on the jam-band circuit, Hunter's able to reach young minds that are just discovering jazz.

His latest album, Longitude, features drummer Bobby Previte and turntablist DJ Logic (a frequent guest of jammy faves Medeski, Martin & Wood). Hunter's also covered numerous contemporary rock acts, from the Beach Boys to Steve Miller and Nirvana. He even took on Bob Marley's entire Natty Dread album. Hunter's definitely got trad chops, but his unusual style and sense of adventure regarding the form have attracted many fans who wouldn't normally listen to jazz.

Growing up, Hunter was inundated with folk and blues artists such as Son House, Robert Johnson, Joseph Spence, Taj Mahal and Albert King. At 12, he got his first guitar for seven bucks, and took lessons from heavy metal shredder Joe Satriani. During high school, he got turned on to jazz guitarist Joe Pass, whose ability to blend lead and rhythmic lines simultaneously created the impression of two guitarists. Hunter sought to expand this technique, inventing an instrument that combined the bass and guitar.

Hunter uses his right hand to simultaneously pick bass notes (with his right thumb) and fingerpick guitar notes and chords (with his other four fingers), while fretting the bass and guitar with his left hand. It's a demanding exercise which produces a full "pocket orchestra" sound best seen in trio form, where the fullness of the sound defies what your eyes witness.

This is an interesting gambit which, according to Hunter, requires continual practice. "It's an extremely time-consuming thing that I think I've misguidedly dedicated myself to," Hunter quipped in 2001.

A poor student unable to read music, Hunter packed up his stuff after high school and left the San Francisco Bay Area for Paris, where he busked for months, living on the streets.

"There's nothing better for your chops than having to play 12 hours a day trying to attract a crowd, and trying to make enough money to survive on a day-to-day basis," he once said.

Hunter later returned to San Francisco and recorded for the first time, backing good friend Michael Franti of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on the political hip-hop group's 1992 debut. Hunter's self-titled solo debut followed a year later. Aside from his many solo albums (during which he's also played in duo, trio and quintet formats), Hunter spent the mid-90s in T.J. Kirk. That band performed songs by Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, exhibiting Hunter's funkier side.

Since leaving Blue Note following 2001's Songs from the Analog Playground, Hunter's been on a hot streak highlighted by his most recent discs: last year's crisp, flowing Friends Seen and Unseen; Outre Mer, by his side project Garage à Trois (featuring Tuatara's Skerik and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore); and the new album, Longitude. The latter finds Hunter working within DJ Logic's intermittent swells of electronic noise and shuddering loops, and taking over more lead playing than we're generally privy to from Hunter. These moments of aggression and distortion from the more finesse-oriented Hunter are astounding.

He may not be a Joe Pass or Charlie Christian, but Hunter's found his way into the popular heart (at least by jazz's rather marginalized standards), and has done so without compromising his itinerant creative spirit. Now, more than a dozen years since Hunter started out, he's really hitting his note.

The Charlie Hunter Trio plays two sets at the Neighborhood Theatre on Sunday, September 11. Tickets $15.

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