Thursday, June 15, 2017

"These Rooms" - Jim Hall Trio Featuring Tom Harrell

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


It seems like Herb Wong, the late Jazz author, education, record and concert producer and all-around good friend of Jazz was everywhere in the 1980, and it’s a good thing, too, as Jazz and it makers were having their fair share of troubles surviving during a time when fewer resources were supporting the music.

In an earlier piece, we described Herb’s role with the Stanford University Jazz Artist in Residence program in Palo Alto, CA and Blackhawk Records which was based in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s.

During the decade of the 1980’s, Herb was also active as a producer for DENON - Nippon Columbia for which he along with Executive Producer Tastunori “Tats” Konno developed one of my favorite recording by guitarist Jim Hall with his trio made up of Steve LaSpina on bass and Joey Baron on drums. Tom Harrell is featured on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Issued in 1988 as These Rooms: Jim Hall Trio Featuring Tom Harrell [Denon CY-30002], it is an exquisite. Here are Herb’s instructive and insightful insert notes about the musicians on the date, which was recorded live to 2-track on February 9-10, 1988 at Sorcerer Sound in NYC with Tom Lazarus serving as recording engineer, and the ten tracks featured on the CD.

Just to be clear, here, had it not been for Dr. Herb hearing these musicians play together in his head, this record wouldn’t exist. His Jazz soul made this album happen.

“Among jazz guitarists, Jim Hall exceeds comparison. Unarguably he stands alone and is the one guitarist who can be spoken in the same breath as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. The mere mention of Jim sparks lively responses of praise. For several decades he has earned this top position of respect, but more important is his body of brilliant recordings, as what guards the unanimity of success is his conspicuous artistic integrity and finery. He is a superlative who embraces unique sound and design of his notes; every note selected is a needed choice fitting perfectly in the ultimate sculpture of his music.

His exceptional technique combined with confidence to use or not to use this or that in creating a mood is central to the lull resonant quality his guitar achieves, showing deep devotion and acute alertness to sound.

In producing this recording I was impressed once again by Jim's ability to minimize the use of amplification, sounding nearly like an acoustic instrument. In 1977 my interview with Jim elicited comments germane to this issue: "It's easy to overplay the amplifiers so we play really softly compared to the general dynamic level prevailing today. We begin very softly so we have someplace to go. And then it can sound like it's loud when we're just playing with moderate volume. You can draw the sound out of the instruments a lot better and not push the amps."

Jim's music is drawn from the heart core of the guitar and the heart of his own inner soul, unveiling the truth about their capacity. His horn-inspired solos are lyrical, impassioned and swinging — reflecting a fertile sense of composition. Moreover, his phrases develop in a natural flow from one to the next, his melodically and harmonically resourceful ideas are delivered with taste and logic, and rhythmically his sense of balance is without deflection.


Jim was born on December 4, 1930 in Buffalo. N.Y. and spent his childhood in New York, Columbus and finally in Cleveland. At 10 his Mother, a pianist, gifted Jim with a guitar and quickly at 13 he became a precocious pro in Cleveland. The great innovator Charlie Christian was introduced to him via hearing his famous solos with Benny Goodman. Subsequently, Jim became acquainted with the legendary Django Reinhardt's playing. "After high school I attended The Cleveland Institute of Music where I became seriously interested in classical composition. However, my desire to become a guitarist was so compelling. I had to check it out for fear of long term regrets." explains Jim. So he dropped out of a master's degree program to "pursue my fantasy". Thus began the long, distinguished odyssey of performing and recording. His associates stretch from Chico Hamilton (some 33 years ago). Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre. Ben Webster, Hampton Hawes. and Stan Getz to Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Paul Desmond, Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Ron Carter. Herbie Hancock, Red Mitchell and Wayne Shorter plus so many more.

Prior to this recording, a musician Jim had not had an open opportunity to include in his own recordings is Tom Harrell. I had ruminated over the sumptuous thought of Jim and Tom together — hearing their consonant blends and solos on guitar and flugelhorn in my head, with assuredness that a record of their respective and compatible geniuses should be produced in order that their absorbing subtleties and plentiful imagination could be shared. Both spin their own musical tales. In fact, including Steve LaSpina and Joey Baron, all four musicians on the project are fascinating story tellers who speak fluently thru their instruments.

My esteem for Tom's playing stems from his young teenage years in the San Francisco Bay Area playing in campus bands, jamming in many, many clubs and at the famed Jazz Workshop in S.F. with many name musicians. Born on June 16, 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, he was reared in the S.F. area from age 5 and started trumpet at 8. His gigs began at age 13. Early on, he modeled himself mainly after his inspiration — Clifford Brown and remains a torch bearer of the tradition and spirit of Brown but does tip his hat also to the likes of Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham. Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie. Clark Terry and Woody Shaw. Tom notes, "Clifford was such a strong force and expressed so much warmth and joy." Today, Tom is one of the most sought musicians and has been climbing the rungs of jazz polls steadily. After 6 years on the road with Woody Herman and Horace Silver, he settled in NYC for the last decade recording on more than 70 records and is a main stay in the Phil Woods Quintet.

Phil has said to me, "Tom is the most complete musician in my experience. I continue to be impressed with his total harmonic recall, his knowledge of tunes of the past and his compositions reflecting the future." Tom indeed has perfect ears and an uncanny sense of time. He tries not to think when he solos, allowing "my playing to go beyond conscious thoughts". Like Jim, Tom places a premium on Ihe linkage between feelings and sounds — the fundamental pay off. On several previous recordings, I have invited Tom to participate: I simply value his ability to erupt without notice adding an enigmatical, special dimension.

There is unanimity on Tom's impact on any group. At one point in the studio Joey Baron said admiringly: "Tom, how in the world do you play trumpet like that?"

Bassist Steve LaSpina first played with Tom in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra 10 years ago. “When Tom picked up his trumpet and blew his first notes, I couldn't believe it. I had never heard anything like it and I've enjoyed playing with him since, and he is just marvelous on this date."

Steve was born on March 24, 1954 in Wichita Falls, Texas and raised in Chicago. "My Father Jack, also a bassist, started me on his bass when I graduated from high school and he also taught me the electric bass." Steve was involved with rock and roll, yet his Dad tried to turn him on to jazz by playing records by Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown. Noi until age 13 when Steve heard Fred Alwood at a music camp at the University of Illinois did he catch the jazz fever.

He came to New York in 1979 and "playing with Jim Hall is like a fantasy corne true. Seems like it's always right... I can feel what he's going to play." Just a partial roster of people Steve has played with verifies his gourmet taste — saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and David Liebman; pianists Jimmy Rowles. Marian McPartland and Steve Kuhn; vocalists Joe Williams, Mark Murphy, Morgana King and Helen Merrill. Steve obviously listens to many horn players. As for bassists, the key influences of Charles Mingus. Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro stick out. Just listen to his story-telling on this recording.

"I love the way Steve sounds," Jim says with glee, "and we've worked together off and on for nearly 4 years. I sit in the car a lot in New York and I listen to jazz on WBGO radio and notice lots ol terrific bassists are being recorded, but I'm not pleased with the bass hitting you right in the face, whereas Steve's warm bass sounds like there is more room and depth being used. Steve recently put gut strings (G & D) in place of steel strings. He's definitely a virtuoso bassist." Take note Steve had acquired a more than 100 year-old French bass with great gut strings on the day of rehearsal and he was ecstatic over it. Its timely availability for the recording was a boost to the quality of sound.

"I look for guys who listen well and react well together, similar to what Jimmy Giuffre has drawn as an analogy between a 'mobile sculpture' and his trio (Giuffre-Brookmeyer-Hall) as not being uni-dimensional I've always kept that philosophy — meaning we should not sound like a guitar with a rhythm section!"

Joey Baron is a very in-demand drummer performing with Jim and Steve close to 2 years on a fairly regular basis. This is the first record of his membership in the trio. "Joey was recommended to me by numerous musicians coast to coast." The consensus is not surprising as Joey's long list of associations in the last 13 years is replete with unique voices of jazz; e.g., Dizzy Gillespie, Art Pepper, John Scofield, Toots Thielemans, Randy Brecker. Blue Mitchell, Pat Martino, Lou Rawls. Carmen McRae, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Red Rodney, Stan Getz, Bill Frisell, Al Jarreau and so many others.

Regarding Jim, Joey pours emotively: "He's a great musician — not so much the instrument itself, but that he plays the music! And I'm attracted to those who do. In Jim's case, you can pick him out of 1000 players every time. In playing with him, his concept of time is a model to emulate. I hope to approach Jim's level some day. He lets you relax and you don't have to baby sit... he opens the ground up for trust in an unspoken way. Lots of things happen between us that way. Jim's sound is the way he pulls people into him."

"I feel I can talk to Joey while he's playing.standing right in front of his cymbals, explains Jim. "Joey gets inlo high intensity without being loud in volume. He has perfect touch."

There's truly something distinctive about guitar and drums — a guitarist can't play 8-note chords all the time like many pianists who fill up the room and leave little space for the drummer. "Jim plays but a few notes, leaving space for conversations with me." Joey emphasizes, "and the way he accompanies, the way he puts intervals in — like he could just hit 2 notes over a chord and it pushes a different sound out of the chord, in contrast to someone who plays a straight chord."


The Music In This Collection

From the very first notes of Jim Hall's guitar on the 1929 Rodgers and Hart WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, you just know he's special. Then enters Joey Baron's melodic brushes and Jim counterpoints. The first rate solos by Jim, Steve and Tom are unpredictable in construction and have gorgeous sounds spilling out. It's plain all four are like vocalists singing their stories on the uplifting 6/8 waltz version — its format matching the spirit of the tune. Jim arranged a half step up modulation in the middle when Tom comes in on the first chorus, giving it more of rising feel. The tune moves along at a good pace but the chords are stretched out and move more slowly.

CROSS COURT — an appealing 24-bar blues is the first of several Jim Hall originals. It's a key of G blues but moves up a half step in the last 4 bars. It's not the routine "let's just play some blues, guys" type of piece, but an architectural piece. The title of ihe tune comes from Jim's love for tennis. "I took my first tennis lessons from the great Don Budge who's a big jazz fan, from Lester Young to Bill Evans." His specialty was a back hand cross court — therein lies the inspiration for the name. "The line of the tune in the beginning — the unison or octaves with bass and guitar is extremely hard to play on the bass and the guitar. It's supposed to sound easy but I keep writing these things because Steve can play them!

"I love the rhythm section feeling. Joey has a grin on his face most of the time which got me to write the last chorus — the jolly sound with the little breaks with Joey." And dig the trace of Stravinsky in the out chorus, spiking the music with quasi-humor.

A flugelhorn/guitar duet carries the unstrained conversation ol the hauntingly charming ballad SOMETHING TELLS ME composed by Jim's wife, Jane. Beginning with E-flat major it wanders thru different keys, finally settling on B-flat "I added a coda at the end," says Jim. "I wrote it specifically for Tom and I love the way Tom plays it." The two of them capture the beautiful mood and possibly the true mood of the tune.

When Jim performed and recorded with pianist Michel Petrucciani and Wayne Shorter at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1986, he wrote BIMINI on commission — a bright calypso similar to what he did with Sonny Rollins. The light, loping Caribbean line has nice “islandic” flavors. Joey is like a gang of percussionists rolled into one!

Ben Webster was a consummate master of improvising jazz ballads. ALL TOO SOON is one of these soothing Ellington compositions recorded in 1940 featuring Ben's suave tenor saxophone, "I first met Ben at one of the once a month concerts sponsored by my friend Dr. Lorin Stephens, an orthopedic surgeon in Arcadia, California during the early days. Red Mitchell and Hampton Hawes played with us frequently, too." Jim certainly narrows his concentration with intense sensitivity on his magnificent solo guitar essay. I felt an unaccompanied interpretation would bring out further colors to add to the whole.

"After turning on to the enticing concept about recording with Tom for the first time, I was inspired to catch Tom's sound," Jim recounts his process in designing THESE ROOMS — the title selection in three sections. "I jotted a little motif with low register for Tom's horn ... examining some intervals — little groups of 2 notes. It gradually took shape with Steve coming on with his counterpoint. Bartok influenced my linear writing: he was my hero. I tied it with the guitar section, including a whole chordal phase before Tom and Steve check in, just ahead of the start of the last section." Jim wrote the third section with some exciting surprises — a gospel. New Orleans street band sound with Joey's authentic marching drums heralding Tom's hip swinging. It gets a little more abstract and ends with the beginning motif. It leaves everyone with a good up feeling.

A segue to the durable 1939 ballad DARN THAT DREAM ushers in another ring of colors by way of a delicate development between Jim and Steve. Both converse with telepathic manifestation of melodic motifs. Steve's close link to Scott LaFaro's highly vocal quality is apparent. And Jim ... well, every note he plays sounds larger than life. Originally planned for the trio to play, it just felt intriguing for a duo, adding a different miniature theater.

MY FUNNY VALENTINE is the one track featuring the working Jim Hall Trio. The tasteful swing powers vitality into individual statements while they merge as three. Remember how people were knocked out by the superb ad hoc interpretation by Bill Evans and Jim on Bill's 1962 "Undercurrent" album!

WHERE OH WHEN is partly dedicated to Freddie Green who passed away in 1987. "Freddie was truly a big hero of mine," Jim says with deep sincerity. The format is fashioned to give generous opportunities for the group to express lyricism with ease.

Tom Harrell's own FROM NOW ON winds things up with chops and finesse. "This was inspired by the collaborations of Jim and Bill Evans," relates Tom, "and also by Dizzy's writing of his "Con Alma" and a little of the way Benny Golson uses certain sounds. It's a good vehicle for Jim's beautiful, sensitive playing". Indeed its harmonic movement is reminiscent of what Jim and Bill did on their iwo duo albums, especially the kinds of motion and colors — sort of a mood of sadness, but something positive rising out of dejection. The ABA structure of the tune finds its way thru different tonal centers. A nice ride to close the recording.

"This project brought Tom into my consciousness as I had never truly played with him, I was in my room writing almost everyday or at least thinking about it for two solid months. And I think it really paid off." Jim continues "I wanted tunes that represent variety not only between tunes but within the tunes to keep the interest burning. So for me, it was a lot of preparation — tons of paper! I just dug in there and I'm grateful for the motivating idea behind it. I'm thoroughly delighted!"

In the final analysis, it really matters little how Jim does it. At times he's like a Japanese brush painter's unfettered improvisations. Jim surprises often and disrupts prediction. His music always sound fresh. Perhaps his jazz life has been a quest for quality fulfillment. Jim Hall surely picks the choicest notes in the world.”
— DR. HERB WONG


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