CAMBRIDGE — Someone putting on Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola’s 2012 album, “Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead,” might take it for a straightforward, jazz-oriented guitar trio, albeit one with a particularly tight rhythmic vocabulary.
But Hunter’s on board, so that means he’s playing his unique, seven-stringed guitar, on which he plays bass and melodic lines simultaneously. And the versatile Amendola, who has played with this partner on-and-off for two decades, responds to subtle shifts in dynamics with ease, answering back with new musical wrinkles of his own. The resulting blend sounds like the work of more than two musicians.
Hunter says his music is rooted in groove, but only truly works when everyone onstage is comfortable with a sort of spontaneous composition. You might say he’s looking for a Goldilocks effect between a deep pocket and lateral flexibility.
“You can have the most grooving drummer in the world, but you still need to have that orchestral kind of mentality to make it work — someone who’s playing but thinking about what’s going on conceptually and improvisationally,” Hunter says, on the phone. “Some guys would be way too grooving without that orchestral mentality, and some guys would be way too orchestral without enough groove. Scott and I have always had this thing where we get it right in the middle there.”
The musical relationship between Hunter and Amendola goes back to the mid ’90s, when they were in a series of bands reconfiguring work by artists ranging from Thelonious Monk to the Steve Miller Band. (Hunter hasn’t given up his taste for creative covers; another of his projects, Omaha Diner, only plays tricked-out arrangements of songs that were number-one hits.) A prolific composer, Amendola’s other gigs include his own trio and the Nels Cline Singers. He’s been commissioned to write for a Bay Area symphony orchestra, and has an eclectic sensibility that’s led him to incorporate electronics in his own work.
Hunter has led his own trio and quintet, and in recent years explored the duo format extensively. As reflected in the name of the last record, and its recession-aware song titles like “Ghost Mall” and “There Used to Be a Nightclub There,” this focus is rooted partly in a creative choice, but also in the economic realities of touring these days.
When the two play Club Passim on Tuesday, they’ll feature material from their latest record, which is all written by Hunter, as well as selections from a follow-up to be released in October stocked with Amendola’s compositions.
“It's always challenging when you’re writing something for a specific ensemble,” Amendola says. “You write it a certain way but know that it’s going to be interpreted. I’m going to give it to Charlie and he’s going to put his stamp on it, which is what I want. That’s why we play together. I want to hear what he’s going to do with it. We each have ideas, and we just work it out.”
The 2012 record has a loose feel to it, despite the obvious rapport of the musicians. Songs tend to lope along at a mid-tempo groove, led by Hunter’s jazz-oriented guitar leads that show great chops without being flashy.
His instrument has five guitar strings and two bass strings, giving him the chance to pursue different ideas simultaneously, though he has a more limited dynamic range at his disposal than someone playing a traditional bass or guitar. (For years he played an eight-stringed variant before simplifying his sound a bit.)
Since he’s more concerned with cool grooves than hot licks, it suits his sound just right.
“I’ve gotten further and further away from the attitude of trying to play flashy guitar stuff or really intricate bass stuff. There doesn’t have to be this grandiose, operatic, tenor-guitar playing. The groove takes the foremost responsibility. When you take the parts apart, it’s pretty simple stuff. The potential for magic all comes from the counterpoint,” Hunter says. “A lot of guitarists and bass players will get a lot of facility but they’re not paying attention to the groove, and their music suffers because of that.”
Amendola takes a complementary approach; he’s not rushing in to fill in the gaps with armloads of fancy fills. “The underlying theme of this new record is space,” he says.
One does get the feeling that either musician could take off on a hair-raising solo any time they wish; indeed, they find their moments. But their overarching sense of restraint is its own kind of learned skill. Hunter admits he first came up with his unique instrument as an ambitious young musician eager to get attention, but found a voice that was less about finger-bending fireworks than a tasteful melding of sounds.
As Hunter and Amendola deepen their ongoing musical conversation, while maintaining a flow of other diverse gigs, they continue to find new combinations of sound.
“That’s what’s great about this whole hustle,” Hunter says. “You never know what is around the corner, or what certain people are capable of when you put them together. People always surprise you.”