Jim Hall wasn’t just a jazz guitarist…first, and foremost, he was a great musician. Like Bill Evans for the piano Jim made us hear the guitar anew. In his hands the guitar took its rightful place in the arena of jazz and became the artistic instrument it was always capable of being. Jim Hall took his inspiration from the great jazz artists of his era and from a few before him. Born in 1930 he was to too young to hear in person the great Ellington Orchestra in its prime, but his solos had the phrasing of the great saxophone players Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges…in other words, sheer artistic perfection. But he also listened to Charlie Christian, and Jim’s earliest records for Pacific Jazz show the strong influence of the famed originator of the amplified jazz guitar. In a recording with Art Farmer in the mid-1960’s Hall even quotes Charlie Christian directly on their version of Stomping at the Savoy. Jim also absorbed the influence of the great rhythm guitarists of the swing era – especially Freddie Green, and Jim could mesmerize an audience with the light, bouncy swing of rhythm chords during another musician’s solo. In other words, Jim Hall mastered the history of early jazz guitar holding on to all its essentials while he also explored the newer forms of modern jazz with its altered chords and newer scales and harmonies. He combined the best of tradition and modern exploration. This is why his records do not sound dated as some recordings of other guitarists do. Hall could ‘blend’ his sound with any instrumentalist and any rhythm section. Sometimes his presence was almost transparent except that he was always, always contributing. By the mid-1960’s Jim Hall was much sought after by jazz musicians and he never had to play with inferior players. Some of the musicians who wanted him in their groups included arrangers Claus Ogerman and Gary McFarland, tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins, flugelhorn player Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, and of course pianist Bill Evans. The two recordings by Bill Evans and Jim Hall redefined the concept of “duet” and quietly rocked the jazz world. Nothing was ever the same again! Jim Hall is often referred to as the ‘poet laureate’ of jazz guitar, but on the Evans/Hall version My Funny Valentine these two musicians played an incendiary performance of this well- known ballad. (Hall had accomplished the same fiery intensity in his recording with Paul Desmond on Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You on a Warner Brothers album.) Musicians sounded at their absolute best when playing with Jim Hall. Even musicians of this high caliber reached even deeper into themselves and discovered levels of playing that they probably didn’t even know existed. Jim Hall’s versatility as a musician/guitarist was first demonstrated in two unusual jazz ensembles in the 1950’s: The Chico Hamilton Quintet (recording on Pacific Jazz) and The Jimmy Guiffre Three (Atlantic Records). The unusual textures achieved in the Hamilton Quintet were amazing (the group featured guitar, flute or alto and cello – yes, that’s right, the cello!) With Guiffre, Jim played in one group which featured bassist Ralph Pena and multi-instrumentalist, Guiffre…but the truly amazing ensemble is the one called The Western Suite which features only Jim Hall on guitar, Guiffre on sax and clarinet, and Bob Brookmeyer playing valve trombone. On that recording Jim Hall’s guitar represents what would normally be considered the entire rhythm section. There were times in Jim’s career when he was called upon to be a magician…and this was one of them. Of course, it is also a tribute to Guiffre and Brookmeyer that they were able to complete the illusion of being a full ensemble when in fact it is only three musicians – two of which are horn players. Their version of the Eddie Durham-Edgar Battle hit for the Basie Band Topsy burns! This writer also saw Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The two musicians filled the venue and you could hear a pin drop as the audience listened to their inspired collaboration. Just a guitar and a trombone played by two masters was enough to hold the attention of a large audience and keep the enthralled.
Jim Hall graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music where he no doubt learned much about music theory and harmony, but his greatest learning came from his ability to listen and assimilate. Jim Hall has been called a ‘minimalist’ and to a great extent this is true because he valued space and silence in his improvisations. Jim taught us that ‘less is more.’ He was never guilty of overstatement. He was a virtuoso of creativity not of muscle ability and complex ‘licks.’ When you listen to a Jim Hall solo you encounter form and substance. Debussy and Ravel were minimalists too, so Jim was in good company. Unlike any other guitarist of his generation Jim Hall wove together musical ideas which blended chords and single notes so that the whole was greater and any part. It makes no sense to try to pick apart a Hall solo because each solo is an integral whole – as tightly woven as it is also delicate and intricate. He taught us the value of approaching a jazz solo as if one were composing…and indeed that is exactly what he was doing. But Hall also listened to the musicians he was playing with – he interacted with them – he collaborated with them – there was a real interplay of ideas, emotion and rhythm. These shared collaborations resulted in many pairings with just one other artist, and fortunately many of them are recorded for all of us to hear. Here is a list of some of his jazz partners (probably incomplete): Paul Desmond, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans, George Shearing, Michelle Petrucciani, Red Mitchell, and Ron Carter. His first recording with Ron Carter recorded in 1972 was another milestone in the history of jazz, as both musicians demonstrated that a very high level of improvisation could be achieved with just two instruments (and incidentally sell reasonably well as a jazz record – it has never gone out of print!) In addition to his many duet-pairings with fellow jazz artists, Jim Hall frequently performed with his trio which included Terry Clarke on drums and Don Thompson on bass. The interaction between these three musicians is similar to the interplay of ideas that Bill Evans achieved in his famous jazz trio. All of their recordings are masterful and are well worth acquiring.
Special mention has to be made of Jim Hall’s sound and use of the guitar. Jim valued the guitar and saw it as complete in and of itself as an instrument of expression. In an age that has grown increasingly dependent on electronics and gadgets, Jim taught us all that all you need is a good jazz guitar and amplifier. No pedals, no distortion devices, no tricks with synthesizers and computers. Music isn’t about these things. It is about what music has always been about – harmony, rhythm, and melody. Form and Substance. Less is More. An idea that is worth expressing is worth expressing well with good taste and just the right amount of technique. Jim’s guitar sound was achieved by the use of a good tube amp, an acoustic guitar with a nicely wound pick-up, and a string-damper mechanism which allowed the guitar strings to sound full and richly beautiful. In his later recordings, Jim favored the sound of the acoustic guitar even more, and he turned the amplifier down to allow the acoustic sound to shine through.
This commentary on the music of Jim Hall is not meant as a summary (that would be impossible) but as an invitation. It is an invitation to the joy of listening to Jim Hall the artist. Hall’s recordings span several decades and everything he ever recorded is rich and valuable. He is a constant source of creativity, spontaneity and ideas. Because he was frequently invited to join the rhythm section of other artists, his improvisations can be found on the albums of other musicians as well as under his own name. Finding an unknown recording where he was a contributor is always a pleasure! As has already been mentioned, the presence of Jim Hall in a group made everyone sound better. So go out and have fun finding the gems that there to be discovered! Whether you start with a recording under his name or someone else’s – you will be very pleased. Whitney Balliett called jazz “the sound of surprise.” Many surprises await you discovering the music of Jim Hall. Whether you are re-visiting him again or just discovering Jim Hall for the first time you will have a wonderful time. Listening to Jim Hall is like visiting a favorite art museum and discovering treasures in every room. As you proceed through the galleries discovering new surprises, you will be drawn to revisit rooms you have left to enjoy previous well-loved masterpieces and see them again, fresh and new.