What does jazz really mean to people? For the average college student, jazz is the music we all know we should dig but can't quite get our heads around. In small doses, like trumpet strains in hip hop songs, jazz makes total sense; but when standing on its own, it becomes a different story.

Enter Charlie Hunter. As the obvious leader of his own Charlie Hunter Trio, the 37-year-old guitarist is one of the forbearers of jazz's new school. With a broad musical background ranging from hip hop to rock-a-billy, Hunter's sound incorporates these genres and still embodies the rich traditions of jazz.

Growing up in Berkeley, Hunter got his start in the music business through his mother, who repaired guitars for a living. He began playing at age six, but did not immediately delve into jazz. "When you start out playing guitar, in most cases, you don't just start out playing jazz," says Hunter from his cell phone, en route to a show in Monterey. "I was more into learning how to play blues licks and Beatles songs."

Hunter eventually gravitated to jazz by just lending an ear to the music. "There were a lot of records at my local library and I just started checking stuff out "cause I was curious," he says. From that curiosity came an exploration of the work of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, which he fused with other musical influences like Marvin Gaye and P-Funk.

This diverse background may have spurred Hunter's interest in cultivating his talents on the 8-string guitar, an instrument that gives him a heightened presence on stage. "The 8-string is a lot more technically demanding, but when you do get something together on it, it makes the music a little different," says Hunter. "You occupy more space."

For Hunter, who first garnered stage credibility as an opener for U2 in the early nineties, demonstrating his ability has never been the problem. After a slew of collaborative albums under such monikers as T.J. Kirk and Groundtruther, his newly re-formed Trio (now composed of John Ellis on sax and Derrek Phillips on percussion) released a first album of sorts, Friends Seen and Unseen, in July, which debuted at #2 on the Billboard jazz charts.

Hunter has a penchant for connecting with fans and rocking out venues, but pulling in jazz neophytes seems to be an ever-present challenge. "I don't really know, I have no idea," says Hunter of attracting younger fans. "I just feel like the people who are ready to be a part of the audience who would wanna see what we're doing, are ready to meet us halfway anyhow. So the connection is mutual."

For those who are perplexed by jazz, maybe going to see the music live is the only way to bring it to life. But as Hunter suggests, music has to be a two-way street. "I couldn't really verbalize something which is essentially non-verbal. People just need to come and make their own minds up."

Indeed.

Catch the Charlie Hunter Trio at the North Star Bar (27th and Poplar) on Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. $15-17.


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