© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The guitarist is in danger of going down in the Scott Club history as the Quiet American”.
- Max Jones, Melody Maker, June 11th 1966
“There was a time when it would not have seemed unusual to state of an album by a guitarist that its central quality was unalloyed beauty. In these mid-1970s, however, we find meretricious gimmickry, tonal distortion and high-energy assaults on the eardrums an unavoidable part of our milieu. At such a time, a man of Jim Hall's caliber, representing esthetic values that are all but lost, stands out like a gem surrounded by zircons. Egregious displays of technique or technical bravura are antithetical to Hall's nature.”
- Leonard Feather
“Indeed, in what now looks like something of a golden age for jazz guitar, Hall was the figure who best seemed to represent the broad mainstream of his instruments role within the music, neither needlessly agitating for change nor intent on covering ground already well-mapped by others. At the core of his style lay an endless fascination with finding wellsprings of improvisation from the very bedrock of the genre – standard songs, the blues, ballads, chord-changes, melodies, things that swung and which made the kind of instant musical sense than elsewhere was fast being thrown out with the post-bop bathwater.”
- Simon Spillett
What with his quartet and now his big band tearing it up with gigs in many parts of the UK, one wonders where Simon Spillett finds the time to do his research, collect his thoughts and write such comprehensive and instructive insert notes to new CD issues, CD reissues and boxed sets.
Whatever his source of energy, it's always always a delight when Simon “drops by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles [not an inconsiderable trek for him, by the way] and gives us the day off by allowing us to post one of his splendid essays which are always full of enthusiasm for the music and its makers and chock full of brilliant insights about both.
These notes were intended to accompany Harkit HRCD8059, but alas, issues with the musician’s estate created problems and neither the CD nor the notes were released. But as Simon shared with me in the message that forwarded them: “The words shouldn't go to waste…” [An Mp3 version of the music from Jim Hall Live in London 1966 can be downloaded via Amazon.]
By way of background, Simon Spillett is a first-rate Jazz tenor saxophonist and an authority on the music of many of the great players of the instrument who blossomed during the second half of the 20th century, both in Great Britain and in the USA.
He is the author of The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes which Equinox has recently published in a second edition. You can locate my review of it by going here.
In addition to fronting his own quartet and big band, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).
Simon has previously shared essays on Hank Mobley, Hank with Miles Davis, Booker Erwin, Stan Getz and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on this page.
Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
'The audiences at Ronnie's have been so good that I haven't needed more volume.'
So said Jim Hall in a press interview which dared to raise the contention that the American guitarist's music might be just a shade too subtle for a nightclub crowd.
'Sometimes I don't think there's anyone out there until they start applauding,' Hall joked in response to all the silence, adding that his low-key approach – centred on 'playing songs, interpreting them' - could be seen as 'a little reactionary in the light of what's going on in American jazz today.'
Hall had commenced at month long residency at London's Ronnie Scott's on the penultimate night of May 1966, his stint sandwiched in between appearances by blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon and little-girl-lost pianist/vocalist Blossom Dearie. Thus far he was one of a select few guitarists to have broken the club's run of largely tenor saxophone-playing guest stars, joining Wes Montgomery and Belgian René Thomas in a trinity in which he more or less took the middle ground. Indeed, in what now looks like something of a golden age for jazz guitar, Hall was the figure who best seemed to represent the broad mainstream of his instruments role within the music, neither needlessly agitating for change nor intent on covering ground already well-mapped by others. At the core of his style lay an endless fascination with finding wellsprings of improvisation from the very bedrock of the genre – standard songs, the blues, ballads, chord-changes, melodies, things that swung and which made the kind of instant musical sense than elsewhere was fast being thrown out with the post-bop bathwater.
Right from opening night at Ronnie's, he had made this abundantly clear, concentrating on 'superior ballads, hooks on which he can hang his graceful, fluent lines,' as Melody Maker's Bob Houston described them in one review, titled, with yet another nod to Hall's unshowy approach, 'Fluent Jim at a low temperature.'
But there was a problem, at least to the ears of listeners like Houston, who believed the electric guitar 'one of the most anonymous instruments' and one on which a player had to be 'extremely skillful and talented to overcome its tonal limitations.' Hall seemed a little too cool, a musical craftsman whose biggest surprise was, well, a lack of surprise.
Knowing what we now know of the impending arrival of Jimi Hendrix, set to alight in London that same year, and soon to have a a damascene effect on guitarists of all stripes, Houston's words seem like those of a flat-earth proponent, yet he had a point; at face value there was something altogether safe and buttoned-up to Hall's music; a quiet middle-aged American in a collar and tie soberly cataloguing the Great American Songbook. More Actuary than Reactionary.
Given a little context, it's a lot easier to see why Hall's gentle, modest, attitude found itself the object of such scrutiny. And that same context makes it a whole lot more understandable why one of the most gentlemanly and least outspoken of jazz musicians might consider his art to have more than a whiff of controversy about it. In an era of ever-more outrageous emoting within jazz, Hall wasn't the kind to board a soapbox. In fact, if his choice of low volume really was a reaction to anything it might be construed as a (passive) protest against the attendant noise of recent jazz “progress”, much of which was coming at the expense of the very things he held dear as a musician - melody, harmony and instrumental discipline.
And it wasn't only happening in the land of his birth. By the spring of 1966, the London jazz scene was already seeing the first indications of a change in what now comprised jazz modernity, with even a venue already as “establishment” as Ronnie Scott's forced to embrace the new wave. In April that year the maverick alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman had commenced a residency at the club's Frith Street premises, creating performances so divisive as to make those by the man who had preceded him – Sonny Rollins, so far the most musically capricious of Scott's invited American guests – sound almost derrière guard in comparison.
Elsewhere in the capital that year there were other seismic stylistic shocks. In fact, on the front cover of the very issue of Melody Maker in which Hall had confessed his 'reactionary' tendencies, the news broke that John Coltrane and arch-radical Albert Ayler were to make London appearances later that year (in the end only Ayler arrived, making a one-off BBC TV recording at the London School of Economics, which, according to those present rendered everything before it artistic scorched earth.)
Hot on the heels of men like Rollins and Coleman maybe Hall did sound a little blanched. At 35, he would have certainly made a great poster boy for jazz conservatism. Although he had more than proved his mettle in instrumental settings that were anything but conventional (he came to prominence in the mid-1950s edition of drummer Chico Hamilton's chamber jazz quintet, wherein he partnered cellist Fred Katz, and had anchored clarinettist Jimmy Guiffre's pianoless/drummerless trio from 1956 to 1960) even early on in his career Hall sounded pretty much how he looked. Prematurely bald, bespectacled and blandly undemonstrative on-stage, minus his guitar he might have been mistaken for an Eisenhower-era diplomat; his musical lines were similarly neat and tidy, straightening even the most free-wheeling of improvisational concepts into something cogent and palatable.
And it was this knack – that of being able to streamline and amplify (no pun intended) the ideas of other leaders – that led Hall to spend the best part of the first twenty years of his career as a perennial sideman. The list of those who employed his services both on- and off-record during this period is hugely impressive, ranging from Sonny Rollins ('it was sort of like being knighted for me') through Paul Desmond ('for all the years we hung out together we only played in public twice') and Gerry Mulligan to Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and beyond.
Accordingly Hall's discography as a musical accomplice during this time contains a high proportion of classic jazz albums: Rollins' The Bridge, Paul Desmond's First Place, Mulligan's Night Lights, a triptych of records with Farmer's quartet, Ella in Berlin and so on. His collaborations with Evans – 1962's elegiac Undercurrent and 1966's Intermodulation, taped a couple of weeks before he opened at Ronnie's – are in another league again, being among the most intimate of all jazz recordings, creating a listening experience more akin to eavesdropping on a private conversation than witnessing a performance intended for the wider world. Reserved and romantic, they're also about as far removed from the folk-image of 1960s jazz as can be imagined
What all these diverse leaders heard in Hall was one and the same: his characteristic ability to telescope the influence of his first idol – Charlie Christian – into all manner of post-bop settings. Added to this was his uncanny accompanist's ear – as suited to Rollins as it was to Fitzgerald.
There was a downside to all this though: up until the early 1970s, Hall made all but a penny-packet of albums under his own name. The first, 1957's Jazz Guitar (Pacific Jazz) is a keeper, fully delineating the parameters of his style in its initial stages. Hall didn't capitalise on its success though, rarely venturing out as leader in clubland, far preferring to work under the leadership of others
Nevertheless, despite this handicap, he was well known to English audiences by the time he made his Scott's début, many of whom first glimpsed his bobbing head in the opening sequence of Bert Stern's classic documentary Jazz On A Summer's Day, released in the UK in 1961.
He'd first played London back in 1959 with Jimmy Guiffre's trio and had returned twice since; again with Guiffre as part of a whirlwind Jazz At The Philharmonic tour in spring 1960 and in summer 1964 with flugelhornist Art Farmer's quartet, flying in to make an appearance on BBC-2's iconic flagship series Jazz 625.
For his 1966 Scott run, Hall was assigned local “accompanists”, standard practice for visiting soloists of the time. Hitherto, this modus operandi had created the occasional difference of opinion between headliner and home team (Stan Tracey and Stan Getz was never the most appropriate of pairings) and had resulted in the odd instance of a rhythm section being relegated to the role of simple musical hod carriers. But in Hall's case he got lucky in securing the services of bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Allan Ganley, not only two of the best London jazzmen of the era but also the ideal men for the job. 'Their contribution to the proceedings showed them to be no mere accompanists,' wrote Crescendo's Victor Graham in reviewing one of the Ronnie's sets. 'This really was a Jim Hall Trio.'
By the mid-1960s, both Englishmen had distinguished themselves in the highest circles in British jazz in bands led variously by Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth and others. And both had grown into musical personalities in their own right, Clyne moving on from his Hard Bop roots to take in the increasingly exploratory worlds of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Gordon Beck Trio. Ganley, on the other hand, had refined his already adaptable style into one which could fit just as easily behind Blossom Dearie as it could the Indo-Jazz Fusions.
Hall declared himself well-pleased. 'I'm helped here...by having Jeff Clyne and Allan Ganley, both very sympathetic guys,' he told Max Jones of Melody Maker. 'Each guy has an important role. They're not just keeping rhythm.'
And neither was Hall. 'The full range of his instrument was thoroughly explored, its voicings and sonorities, its facility and expressiveness and all executed with a cleanness and total lack of that extraneous noise which is accepted from even the finest classical guitarists,' reported Victor Graham in the kind of review that makes one wish sounds could leap off the written page.
With this new Harkit release they can. Culled from what appears to be an ever-expanding tranche of tapes recorded at Ronnie Scott's by differing hands during the Sixties, this recording documents Hall's closing night at the club, providing a rare opportunity to hear a piece of history come alive. This session isn't just a rarity for Hall's playing alone - itself a veritable capstone to all that he had put on offer during his Ronnie's run. Scott Club connoisseurs will note another novelty, that, for once, it's not the clubs namesake that make the customary opening and closing announcements but his partner Pete King, usually a man of few words ('two, in fact,' Scott used to joke).
King's formalities bookend a set of undoubted charm and considerable subtlety – every bit as good as those Melody Maker and Crescendo's reviews would have us believe.
There are gem-like ballads – Here's That Rainy Day, with its glorious moments of reharmonisation and the contemporary vehicle Who Can I Turn To?, thankfully robbed of all its mawkishness: a couple of waltzes – the recherché choice of Irving Berlin's All Alone and Sonny Rollins' driving Valse Hot (which Hall had played with both its composer and Art Farmer) and at least two examples of the trio taking material done to death elsewhere and making it come up as fresh as a daisy; All The Things You Are, the opening choruses of which prove that “free” interactive improvisation need not be all clutter and bluster, and Secret Love, which cooks on low heat for around three and a half minutes before steaming into the most delicious of tempos.
Perhaps best of all there's a tailor-made bossa-nova, O Gato, written for Hall by his wife Jane (who was then balancing the dual-but-not-disconnected roles of New York-based psychoanalyst and songwriter), a theme the guitarist had already taped with Paul Desmond (see the RCA-Victor album Bossa Antigua, 1964).
Visiting Brazil as part of Ella Fitzgerald's touring band in 1960, Hall had been one of the first US jazzmen to pick up on the countries' “new wave” and was featured on two classic bossa albums of the period – Stan Getz' Big Band Bossa Nova and Gerry Mulligan's Night Lights. Hearing him revisit this groove at Ronnie's, with Ganley's insinuating, metronome-consistent beat behind him, is one of the sessions highlights.
Throughout this set Hall displays his every gift, spinning improvisations that alternate single-note runs with densely-packed, chordally-rich passages, accompanying his partners in their own solo spots with pithy interjections (hear the duet he and Ganley get into on The Touch Of Your Lips), all the while directing everything with unfussy ease. There's humour too, especially evident in the deliberate allusions to other themes he weaves into Valse Hot, including Desafinado and 52nd Street Theme. If you know your Sonny Rollins you'll appreciate these all the more: Hall had played in the saxophonist's quartet for around a year in 1962-63 by which time Rollins had proved himself a master at musical quotations. Hall's use of a lick from Lester Young's Every Tub solo is another nice nod, taking one of Rollins' own favourite quotes and sending out into the ether.
Afforded equal time and space by their leader Clyne and Ganley excel too: listen to the sheer solidity and strength of the bassists tone, and for how, both as a soloist and section player he periodically demonstrates a fluency that at times makes it sound as if two guitars are at work rather than one. Ganley is perfect at every turn, with his solo on Secret Love providing the perfect distillation of his approach: a model of rhythmic punctiliousness, refreshingly free from any false “drumnastics”, the whole consistently underpinned with a sense of dynamics rarely heard from British musicians of the era.
All three of the musicians heard here are now gone. Allan Ganley died suddenly in 2008, followed by the equally unexpected death of Jeff Clyne a year or so later. Jim Hall survived into his 83rd year, passing away in his sleep in 2013. After their initial meeting at Ronnie's in 1966, all three stayed in touch, Ganley recording with the guitarist and Art Farmer in the US in the 1970s (the album Commitment, A&M, 1976), a reunion he sadly later revealed was soured by the uncooperative attitude of a big-time, big-name American bassist. Hall himself always remained open to the new and, after straightening himself out from debilitating personal problems, his performances over the final thirty years of his life grew ever more adventurous, leading to collaborations with a host of notable jazz artists from a younger generation, including Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano and Michel Petrucciani.
Whatever the setting he steadfastly maintained his “music first” credo, keeping faith with the idea that genuine improvisation needn't come at the expense of artistic taste. 'I like to believe there's a way of reaching people by making them want to listen,” he said during his 1966 season at Ronnie Scott's. “You know, drawing them to you rather than pushing them away.'
Musical pulling power doesn't come more subtle than this.”