Hunter bags fresh game in New York

Charlie Hunter is a citizen of groove-jazz nation -- the informal community of American musicians who mix the heady improvisational style of John Coltrane with funk and R&B rhythms and the jamming philosophy of the Grateful Dead. The San Francisco guitarist once was a prominent member of the genre's West Coast branch, along with Bay-area band T.J. Kirk and guitarist Will Bernard.

Hunter split for New York following the death last year of his bandmate, saxophonist Caldier Spanier, and the subsequent break-up of his old quartet. He immersed himself in the scene that begat modern-jazz icons Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Stephen Bernstein's Sex Mob as well as the denizens of New York City's Knitting Factory.

"It was a change that I really needed, and I'm glad that I did it," says Hunter, whose current Pound for Pound trio includes vibraphonist Monte Croft and drummer Willard Dyson.

"I wanted to learn more music from different people. I wanted to do that New York thing before I got too old to do it. There's so many great musicians there from so many different backgrounds."

Hunter, 30, plays guitar and bass parts simultaneously on an eight-string instrument that often sounds like a B-3 organ. He's well into the next chapter of a career that began when he was a teen-ager in Berkeley, Calif. After playing rock and blues while in high school, he stumbled onto a record by jazz-guitar legend Charlie Christian and became enraptured by the music of bebop forefathers such as Coltrane and Miles Davis.

The guitarist moved to Paris at 19 and hooked up with a group of musicians who traveled from town to town. Hunter sang, danced and played string bass and/or whatever instrument was required at the moment.

Years later, Hunter continued his adventures in unpredictable music with T.J. Kirk., which ingeniously reworked the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

"Return of the Candyman," released this spring, is the first album from Pound For Pound. Hunter is joined by vibraphonist Stefon Harris, drummer Scott Amendola and percussionist John Santos. The subdued album contains references to Bob Marley, a cover of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle," the Beatles-esque title track, and a nod to saxophonist Ornette Coleman on "Of Things to Come."

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During a set at the Texaco New York Jazz Festival in June, Pound for Pound emphasized edgier interaction than is heard on the disc. Hunter's alternately warm and gritty axe made an intriguing blend with Croft's mellow vibes and Dyson's back-beating drums.

The sound of Hunter's new outfit is a far cry from the edgier, more aggressive, horn-spiked attack he sported on 1993's "Charlie Hunter Trio." Successive albums included "Bing! Bing! Bing!" "Ready ... Set ... Shango" and "Natty Dread," a song-for-song cover of the classic Bob Marley album.

Why the switch-up? "I just had done that horn thing for a long time," he says. "It was time to do something different. I think it's good to change your modus operandi from time to time. I wanted to experiment with something that was much more percussion and rhythm-section based, just a different kind of timbre and tonality."

In recent months, he's spent time absorbing live and recorded work by musicians from Brazil, Africa and Cuba -- fitting for a guitarist whose audience runs from the hippie-rock crowd to bebop fans.

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"That's what my music is all about -- hybridization," he says. "Rock & roll is a multimillion-dollar industry. At one point, it was a fledgling hybrid of R&B and rockabilly and hillbilly and the blues. Now it's what it is.

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"It's most important for me to do my own thing."

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