We guitar players like talking with other players about which guitarists are our favorites. And once the conversation starts it’s usually a good time to make a couple of pots of coffee or order some pitchers of beer, because we’re going to be there a while. If you’re a non-guitarist you’re best served by getting as far away from the conversation as fast as you can, because guitar talk can really get into the weeds.
The nice thing is that guitarists are a friendly bunch, and while the chat may get lively, it’s understood that there are no wrong answers when we mention which players we like the most. But when Charlie Hunter’s name comes up no one really has much to say, and we all just shake our heads in quiet resignation. Doesn’t matter if you’re a jazzer, a head banger or a flat picker, everyone seems to agree that he is that good.
On Wednesday night at the National Arts Centre Theatre in Ottawa, a capacity crowd got to see his brilliance first-hand as he played for the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. You see, what makes Charlie Hunter so unique is the instrument he plays and the way he plays it. His instrument is a custom-made 7-string guitar with a fanned fretboard. The three lowest strings are sent to a bass amplifier, and the top four strings are sent to a regular guitar amp. There is no bass player in sight, and he covers the low notes while simultaneously playing chords or soloing. Sometimes he does all three at once.
To those who don’t know his music, this could seem gimmicky, but Charlie Hunter is one of the most musical guitarists in the world. The bass lines, melodies and chord changes are all fully-realized musical statements and there are no compromises. On Wednesday in Ottawa, he was joined by drummer Bobby Previte and trombonist Alan Ferber. On paper, that’s a pretty sparse lineup, but in the capable hands of these three brilliant players the sound was full and rich, and nothing was missing.
Best of all they were having a blast. Throughout the show, Hunter would react to his bandmates’ playing with a loud, heartfelt, “YEAH!!!” Sometimes he’d even do that in response to his own playing. There was laughter and playfulness and hugs and fist bumps and some really beautiful musical camaraderie.
As I write this 36 hours later, I wish they were still playing, because I’d still be there listening.