Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jim Hall: The Quiet Guitarist

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

“Jim Hall is the perfect musical partner.”
- Joachim Berendt, Jazz writer and producer

Today [12/4/2012] is Jazz guitarist Jim Hall’s eighty-second birthday and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to honor him on these pages with a profile that touches upon his many contributions to the music.

Jim Hall is such a quiet, understated and unassuming person that it’s very easy to overlook his many accomplishments in a career that has spanned almost 60 years!

Gene Lees wrote of him:

“Jim Hall sometimes is compared by critics to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, but then probably every guitarist in jazz has a debt to Christian who, in his short life — he died in 1942 aged twenty-four — became the most important early explorer of amplified guitar as a solo instrument. However, Jim and his trom­bonist friend Bob Brookmeyer both cite the unsung Jimmy Raney among their influences. From Raney, they say, they developed their integrated and highly compositional approach to the improvised solo, the pensive development of motifs.

Jim started playing guitar professionally in Cleveland when he was in his teens, and he studied at the highly respected Cleve­land Institute of Music, from which he received a bachelor of music degree in 1955. He then settled in Los Angeles where he became a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, meanwhile studying classical guitar with Vincente Gomez. From 1956 to 1959 he was part of the Jimmy Giuffre Three. Then Jim moved to New York where he was for a time under the curse of his association with so-called West Coast jazz. That ended when one of the major jazz icons, Sonny Rollins, hired him.

Jim had close associations, too, with Paul Desmond, with whom he recorded a series of superb albums for RCA, and with Bill Evans. He and Bill recorded two stun­ning duo albums together, achieving a rap­port that at times was uncanny. Another close associate has been the bassist Ron Carter, with whom he has worked as a duo from time to time since 1984.”

Elaborating further on the duo albums that Jim made with pianist Bill Evans, author Peter Pettinger remarks in his Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings biography:

“One of the mysteries of music that defies analysis is the ability of two musicians to play especially well together, to feel and instinctively adapt to what the other is doing. The duet recording made by Evans and Hall, Undercurrent [and a latter collaboration entitled Intermodulation], exemplified this secret. In this sublime meeting, the artists shared a common ground of musical values, Hall confessing to having long been influenced by Evans. Both, too, had a strong feeling for chamber music: the interactive trio was the pianist's aspiration, and Jim Hall's small-group pedigree was high, especially within the intimate settings of the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Quality of sound encompasses a blending of timbres, in this case lovingly conjured; singing tone shines out from every note.

There is a hazard attached to combining piano and guitar, both essen­tially chordal instruments. Although jazz musicians use alternative chords with ease, the simultaneous choice of two valid but different chords may well not work. Evans and Hall had the intelligence and mutual awareness to escape this snare. And to avoid textural overcrowding, both were conscious of the value of space, every note being made to count in their joint tapestry.”

James Isaacs describes Hall’s value this way in his insert notes to Intermodulation:

“While Evans was bringing jazz piano to a new pinnacle of sheer beauty, Hall was spending the first half of the 1960's as. in the words of the German critic Joachim E. Berendt, ‘the perfect part­ner.’ He shared the front line with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and flugelhornist Art Farmer in two of the outstanding small groups of any decade, and recorded a series of debo­nair LPs with the late altoist Paul Desmond.”

Since the mid-1980s, thanks to long association with two labels, Concord and Telarc, Jim Hall has  performed and made recordings with some of the best and brightest musicians on the current Jazz scene including trumpeters Tom Harrell and Ryan Kisor, trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jim Pugh, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassists Don Thompson, Rufus Reed, Steve La Spina, Scott Colley and George Mraz.

In one of his timeless and superbly written essays for The New Yorker magazine that have been collected in his American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett offered the following depiction of Jim Hall:

“Hall, though, doesn't look capable of creating a stir of any sort. He is slim and of medium height, and a lot of his hair is gone. The features of his long, pale face are chastely proportioned, and are accented by a recently cultivated R.A.F. mustache. He wears old-style gold-rimmed spectacles, and he has three principal expressions: a wide smile, a child's frown, and a calm, pleased playing mask—eyes closed, chin slightly lifted, and mouth ajar. He could easily be the affable son of the stony-faced farmer in "American Gothic." His hands and feet are small, and he doesn't have any hips, so his clothes, which are generally casual, tend to hang on him as if they were still in the closet. When he plays, he sits on a stool, his back an arc, his feet propped on a high rung, and his knees akimbo. He holds his guitar at port arms.

For many years, Hall's playing matched his private, nebulous appearance. When he came up, in the mid-fifties, with Chico Hamilton's vaguely avant-garde quintet (it had a cello and no piano), and then appeared on a famous pickup recording, "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West," that was led by John Lewis and involved Bill Perkins, Percy Heath, and Hamilton, he sounded stiff and academic. His solos were pleasantly designed, but they didn't always swing. But as he moved through groups led by Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Art Farmer, his deliberateness softened and the right notes began landing in the right places.

Then he married Jane [in 1965; she is a psychotherapist], and his playing developed an inventiveness and lyricism that make him preeminent among contempo­rary jazz guitarists and put him within touching distance of the two grand masters—Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Listening to Hall now is like turning onionskin pages: one lapse of your attention and his solo is rent. Each phrase evolves from its predecessor, his rhythms are balanced, and his harmonic and melodic ideas are full of parentheses and asides. His tone is equally demanding. He plays both electric and acoustic guitars. On the former, he sounds like an acoustic guitarist, for he has an angelic touch and he keeps his amplifier down; on the latter, a new instrument specially designed and built for him, he has an even more gossamer sound.

Hall is exceptional in another way. In the thirties and forties, Christian and Reinhardt put forward certain ideals for their instrument—spareness, the use of silence, and the legato approach to swinging—and for a while every jazz guitarist studied them. Then the careering melodic flow of Charlie Parker took hold, and jazz guitarists became arpeggio-ridden. But Hall, sidestepping this aspect of Parker, has gone directly to Christian and Reinhardt, and, plumping out their skills with the harmonic advances that have since been made, has perfected an attack that is fleet but tight, passionate but oblique. And he is singular for still another reason. Guitar­ists are inclined to be an ingrown society, but Hall listens constantly to other instrumentalists, especially tenor saxophonists (Ben Webster, Cole-man Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins) and pianists (Count Basie, John Lewis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett), and he attempts to adapt to the guitar their phrasing and tonal qualities.

In his solos he asserts nothing but says a good deal. He loves Duke Ellington's slow ballads, and he will start one with an ad-lib chorus in which he glides softly over the melody, working just behind the beat, dropping certain notes and adding others, but steadfastly celebrating its melodic beauties. He clicks into tempo at the beginning of the second chorus, and, after pausing for several beats, plays a gentle, ascending six-note figure that ends with a curious, ringing off-note. He pauses again, and, taking the close of the same phrase, he elaborates on it in an ascending-descending double-time run, and then skids into several behind-the-beat chords, which give way to a single-note line that moves up and down and concludes on another off-note. He raises his volume at the beginning of the bridge and floats through it with softly ringing chords; then, slipping into the final eight bars, he fashions a precise, almost declamatory run, pauses a second at its top, and works his way down with two glancing arpeggios.  He next sinks to a whisper, and finishes with a bold statement of the melody that dissolves into a flatted chord, upon which the next soloist gratefully builds his opening statement.”

Fortunately for all of his many fans, on March 30, 2009, the Library of Congress sponsored the following video interview of Jim Hall recounting the highlights of his career and his approach to Jazz guitar. Larry Applebaum moderates the discussion.