Richard Hunters groundbreaking 1996 CD The Act of Being Free in One Act, cited as an influence by pianist George Winston in his 1997 and 1998 concert series, re-established the harmonica as a "pocket orchestra," a modern solo instrument with its own virtuosic and moving repertoire. With the release of his second full-length CD, The Second Act of Free Being, Hunter has capped thirty years of innovative work on his instrument, continuing his redefinition of modern harmonica style.
Eleven of the fourteen pieces on The Second Act of Free Being are new compositions by Hunter. The CDs moods range from the jazzy How Long Have I Loved You to the striking 2-part counterpoint of Belas World, whose quiet, eerie tone evokes Bela Bartoks night music, the Aaron Copland-esque sound of Requiem, and a blistering, rocking workout on the traditional song Billy The Kid. The CD also includes two duets with Jerome Harris (of jazz saxophone giant Sonny Rollinss band) on guitar, and a duet with San Francisco-based vocalist Susan Cutrona on a slow, wrenching performance of Bob Dylans It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry.
Hunter is the author of Jazz Harp (Oak Publications, NYC, 1980), a method for intermediate to advanced level players that is internationally regarded as the best book ever written on the art of playing the harmonica. Hunter wrote, arranged, and recorded the 14 unaccompanied harmonica pieces that comprise his first CD, The Act of Being Free in One Act, in 1994 under a grant from the Vermont Council on the Arts. Hunter had been performing isolated solo works for years, beginning in the late 1970s, when he formed an avant-garde harmonica duo with the 1976 European Solo Harmonica Champion, England's Christopher Turner, but it wasn't until he moved to Vermont in 1991 that his solo pieces began to take shape as a program in their own right. "Vermont lends itself to this kind of work," Hunter says. "There's a tremendous sense of personal and temporal space there. It was a great place to work on these solo pieces."
Hunter began piano studies at the age of nine, and began playing organ in his first rock and roll band in upstate New York in 1965. He took up the harmonica two years later. "It was the 60s," Hunter says. "Guitar players and singers were jumping all over the stage, and there I was, stuck behind this big piece of furniture. I wanted something that would give me that kind of freedom." The harmonica was that something. "I heard Paul Butterfield, and his sound was incredibly emotional. I wanted to make that sound."
Hunter landed his first recording session in the summer of 1970, when a member of Sir Henry and His Butlers, the leading Danish rock band, heard Hunter jamming in a club in Copenhagen and hired him on the spot. "It was very exciting," Hunter says. "I decided right then that I wanted to do a lot more of that."
Hunter majored in music at Harvard University, graduating in 1974. In those years Hunter also studied with John Mehegan, the renowned jazz pianist, author, and Yale University professor, and played in a wide range of ensembles on harmonica and piano. From 1974 to 1980 he worked with a variety of jazz and rock bands, and formed his avant-garde duo with Chris Turner. "Chris and I were both trained musicians he'd studied at the Royal Academy in London and we both had a taste for 20th Century composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, so we did a lot of very heavy stuff, things with big clashing chord clusters and lots of wild polyrhythms." It was during this period also that he wrote Jazz Harp, whose original working title was Harmonica for Musicians. "Jazz Harp was a manifesto as well as a method," Hunter says. "It was meant to inspire harmonica players to reach for the same goals as their counterparts on other instruments." The book has since sold over 20,000 copies worldwide, has been translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese, and has earned Hunter an international reputation.
From 1980 to 1991, Hunter worked as a session player in Boston, where he played on hundreds of sessions for major and small label record releases, commercial jingles, and television and film soundtracks, including John Sayles's film City of Hope, and released two singles under his own name. He moved to Vermont in 1991, where he played and recorded with a number of local artists (including The Unknown Blues Band, folk singers Patty Casey and Bob Gagnon, and David Levine of children's music favorites The ReBops, to whose memory "Hymn For Crow" from The Act of Being Free in One Act is dedicated) and wrote, arranged, and recorded the pieces which became The Act of Being Free in One Act.
Hunter now lives with his wife in Connecticut, where he continues to push the limits of music for his instrument. "The Act of Being Free in One Act created a new style for solo harmonica," Hunter says, "and The Second Act of Free Being shows that theres plenty of room for development in that style. Now Im working on ensemble pieces and performing with guitar and bass. Im excited to be applying my discoveries to ensemble work. There's still lots of work to be done, lots of places to take this music. 40 million Americans have played the harmonica. I'd like to give all those players a substantial body of work, something they and their audiences can grow with for a long time." The Second Act of Free Being (available from Turtle Hill Productions, PO Box 651, Monroe, CT 06468-0651, 203-459-9939) is the next giant step towards that goal from a major talent on his instrument.