The people's jazz 

Charlie Hunter refuses to verbalize Garage a Trois' grundle-rattling sound

If Wal-Mart sold discount jazz bands, each set would include a Charlie Hunter. This is not to say that Hunter’s playing is cheap plastic crap (quite the opposite), but that his mastery of the eight-string guitar—the bottom three strings of which sound wholly bass-like—provides for a two-for-the-price-of-one sound.

“It just kind of came out of dealing with a lot of the more nifty players, like Tuck Andress and Joe Pass, who were doing those kinds of counterpoint on the six-string guitar,” says Hunter of his custom-made instrument.

Hunter had played bass before, as well as guitar, so why not put the PB&J together? The results have drawn applause from jazz critics nationwide.

Hunter has recorded over 10 jazz albums with a smorgasbord of talented musicians to date, many of them on the prestigious Blue Note label. Hunter’s current album is Emphasizer, and he’s touring the country with side-project Garage a Trois.

I asked Charlie Hunter, who spoke from a cell phone that cut out every minute or two while driving through West Texas, to describe the Garage a Trois sound for Missoula folk who haven’t heard it yet.

“The only thing that would really describe it is the music, and I guess you’d just have to hear that,” he says.

Okay, so then how would you describe the music?

“I wouldn’t,” he says. “I just don’t believe in trying to describe things that don’t really exist in the verbal world. It’s just too difficult, because it ends up being very non-descriptive, ultimately.”

Then the phone cuts out yet again.

Even if music, especially instrumental jazz, does not exist in the verbal world, as Hunter claims, it’s still my job to pretend that it does, so here we go: Garage a Trois is a jazz-infused magic carpet ride from Hancock to Hendrix. Stanton Moore (drummer for electronically inclined jam-hounds Galactic) lays down the jungle beats with hits that are never quite where you expect them. Moore’s rhythm keeps you on your toes, but it’s clear that those erratic whacks are meant to be where they are, as if there’s a little miniature James Brown in Moore’s head the drummer must obey. Moore’s roll always keeps a foot or two wading in the jazz pool, even at its most rockish. Also in the garage is Skerik on saxophone. This virtuoso may occasionally run his sax through distortion, resulting in a sound similar to Jimi Hendrix after a sunshine hit. Toss in Mike Dillon on vibraphone, whose rapid-fire mallet work is a sure indicator that he would be a ringer on that “whack-a-mole” carnival game. Finally, Hunter stays on the low bass strings for the more funked-out, trip-hoppy jazz, but takes it up high for some Latin fare as well. The foursome might be considered “the people’s jazz,” mainly because it’s more danceable than most—raw and elevating.

These fine musicians have played together (whether in the verbal world or some other realm) for about five years.

“Stanton Moore, the drummer, had Skerik and I on his record, and we toured with that trio and it was a real good time,” Hunter says.

“Then we just started playing once a year at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and added Mike Dillon on percussion, and we’ve been doing it as a side project for everybody ever since.”

The curious song titles for the instrumental pieces on Emphasizer drew my attention, and I asked Hunter how he and the band came up with them.

“Again, it’s trying to verbalize something that’s really non-verbal, but you have to give it a name because nobody wants to see tunes called number one, number two, number three. Sometimes you’ll write a tune for a specific person or an idea and maybe you’ll name it after that. But other than that, I don’t know. You just get the name somehow or other.”

The 2/4-timed Latin piece “Plena for my Grundle” sounded particularly intriguing. Plena is a traditional Puerto Rican folk style which typically deals with the pains or ironies of daily life within a community. As for a grundle…

“Hey man, if you have to ask, you don’t need to know,” Hunter says. “It’s not really fit for consumption of your readers.”

If Hunter won’t spill the beans, I will.

According to the Web site, which may as well be considered the official source on such matters, a grundle is either a “friendly, troll-like character featured in the My Little Pony movie,” “A little old mulatto woman who comes out of a closet in a green mini-skirt and a red wig” who “enjoys jazz squares and looking for her cigarette,” or “The hair and area between your genitals and arse-hole,” as in, “Damn, my grundle is itchy today,” or “My grundle tickles when my girlfriend Julie touches and licks it hard while playing with my nuts.”

Other jungle-jazz pieces are titled “Sprung Monkey” and “Interpretive Ape Dance.” Despite, or perhaps because of the monkey titles, Garage a Trois clearly represents an evolution in the cycle of jazz. This truly is the people’s jazz, glorying in all the sweat and dirt that comprises the making of music and the living of life.

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