Guitarist Jim Hall died well over a year ago, but I’m still in a state of mourning and semi-denial about it. For ages now, Hall has been an essential part of my jazz listening on reams of classic records with other great musicians. In countless settings, he delivered so many indelible, perfect little musical moments that I can scarcely believe he’s gone. Thankfully his prolific recorded legacy lives on, meaning I can bring him into my living room whenever I want, which is often. Some musicians play instruments, while others transcend them to create real beauty; Jim was one of the latter. He wasn’t so much a guitarist as he was a music maker, a special designation of Jake Hanna’s which he reserved only for the musicians he admired most.
The words “empathetic” and “subtle” always came up in descriptions of Hall’s work and fittingly so, he was often those. But the words that come to mind when I consider his musicality mostly start with the letter “i”. His playing had marvelous insight and integrity, a unique dimension of intuitive interplay, quiet intensity and above all, intelligence. He was surely one of the most musically intelligent figures in the history of jazz, which allowed him to do things on the guitar that seemed improbable, sometimes even impossible. Not because they were technically difficult necessarily, but because they seemed to come from out of nowhere, sprung from his highly-attuned musical imagination.
Like the pianist Tommy Flanagan, Hall was mild-mannered, self-effacing and a reluctant leader. Though quite different musically – Flanagan was much more bebop-oriented – the two men had careers with similar trajectories. Each served long apprenticeships as highly-valued sidemen with a myriad of great musicians from the mid-’50s until the late ’60s or early ’70s. Neither made many records as leaders in those years and both were in their forties when they began recording more with their own groups. Particularly in Hall’s case, calling the crucial, highly collaborative contributions he made to the music of Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, John Lewis, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer and Sonny Rollins the work of a mere “sideman” is like saying that Leonardo da Vinci was a fairly bright guy. But as much as I admire Hall’s later work with his own trios, I’ve always felt he was at his best when he had another voice to play off of or to act as a foil to. This is because he often made as much music in accompaniment as many do when featured as a soloist; Hall excelled at both.
Apart from his musical depth, Hall was also highly valued for his droll, ironic humour. This is seemingly strange given his owlish, avuncular appearance, but a lot of funny things happened around him during his career and many great lines came either from him or those present in these situations. One time he was playing with a young bassist who was making a nuisance of himself by playing too many notes and Jim admonished him with: “Don’t just play something, stand there!” He was once playing at a jazz festival that featured a lot of flashy “chopmeister” guitarists and Hall remarked that “those guys might be fast, but I’m s-l-o-w!”
My friend Bill Kirchner teaches at the New School near Union Square in Manhattan, not far from where Hall lived. He told me that Jim made a habit of standing out on the street in front of the school when the students gathered to smoke or chat over coffee. Knowing they wouldn’t recognize him, Jim delighted in playing the man-in-the-street codger, asking the students dumb questions like: “So….. what’s up with all those Greek modes?” Or, “I used to play a little guitar, does G7 still come up much?”
Hall was also a very congenial man, as I discovered when I met him unexpectedly at the Concord Jazz Festival in the mid 1980s. He was playing in a duo with Ron Carter and I was appearing with The Boss Brass and also in a small group featuring Fraser McPherson, Ed Bickert, Dave McKenna and Jake Hanna. I remember waiting for an elevator with my bass one afternoon in the hotel. It stopped and the door opened to reveal four of the greatest bassists in jazz – Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Eddie Gomez and Carter – each with his instrument. “I’ll catch the next one, fellas” was all I could manage to get out of my mouth. Later that night Jake introduced me to Hall in the festival’s hospitality suite. For some reason baseball was being discussed and somebody said something about a shortstop. I replied that this particular ballplayer reminded me of Bud Harrelson a little. Almost imperceptibly, Hall’s head swiveled in my direction and he asked in a gently quizzical tone, “You remember Bud Harrelson?”
That’s all it took. The next thing I knew we were having a really pleasant, nostalgic conversation about Mets infielders of the past, laughing while trying to remember names like Al Weis, Wayne Garland, Eddie Kranepool, Rod Kanehl, Ed Charles and on and on. It was somehow natural yet surreal, finally meeting one of the supreme jazz adepts of my time and then talking with him about baseball, of all things. We were both a little surprised – me because I hadn’t expected Hall to be a baseball fan, which he wasn’t really, tennis was his game. He explained that the Mets became a big deal in New York during the ’60s and he just got caught up in it, he really didn’t follow the game or other teams. He was a little taken aback that a non-New Yorker my age (I was about 29 at the time) would know so much about the old Mets. I explained that it mostly came from reading about them in Roger Angell’s New Yorker baseball pieces and this really opened up the floodgates. It turned out that Hall liked Angell’s writing too and away we went down that road. It just shows that you never know and it remains one of my oddest jazz memories, but a treasured one.
Beginning in 1956, Hall’s work with various editions of The Jimmy Giuffre 3 made his name in the early part of his career. With no drummer, the group had a quiet roominess which, coupled with Giuffre’s sparse, contrapuntal style of composing, put a premium on a musician of Hall’s sensitivity and flexibility. Giuffre needed an interactive guitarist who could switch effortlessly from chordal textures to linear ones, from accompanying to soloing, all with a finely-tuned sense of interplay and dynamics. The rustic, gently down-home flavour of Giuffre’s so-called “swamp jazz” also demanded a guitarist with deep blues feeling and again, Hall fit the bill perfectly. In retrospect, it’s impossible to imagine a guitarist other than Hall rising to the unique challenges and freedoms of playing with this intimate group. He was an integral part of the first trio with bassist Ralph Pena, who was replaced very briefly by Jim Atlas*. Hall also proved indispensable to later Giuffre trio recordings with bassists such as Red Mitchell, Ray Brown and Buddy Clark. In between these, unable to find a bassist he liked as much as Pena, Giuffre replaced the bass with Bob Brookmeyer’s valve trombone. This placed the role of being the trio’s glue even more squarely on Hall’s shoulders and he was more than up to the task.
The trio with Brookmeyer recorded three albums for Atlantic in 1958 – Trav’lin’ Light, The Four Brothers Sound (featuring Giuffre overdubbing four tenor saxophone parts and on which Brookmeyer mostly played piano), and The Western Suite. They’re each very good and interesting records, but The Western Suite, with an iconic Ansel Adams photograph of a Saguaro cactus adorning its cover, is something of a classic. The title piece is an intricate and engaging four-movement suite exploring folkloric Western themes and motifs. By contrast, the rest of the album consists of longish, straightforward (at least for them) outings on two simple pieces – Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” and Eddie Durham’s “Topsy”. For many, the highly composed suite offers the most interesting and complex music on the record and demonstrates the full spectrum of what this trio could achieve. However, I find the most compelling music occurs on “Topsy”. While Giuffre and Brookmeyer each contribute fine solos, this performance is made special mostly by Hall’s contributions, which are by turns both functional and ingenious. Hall had many brilliant moments with this band, but I’ve selected this YouTube clip of “Topsy” because it shows his full musical range as well as anything he ever did.
“Topsy” is a 1930’s Kansas City jazz anthem, but one often favoured by later musicians such as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who recorded a celebrated version of it on Atlantic in 1955. This is likely because the tune is so associated with Lester Young and it offers a relaxed and symmetrical 32-bar structure for improvising. It begins with eight bars in minor which is transposed up a fourth for the second eight. This is followed by a roomy bridge which resolves to the relative major, then a return of the opening eight.
This version begins with a percussive, pedal-based eight-bar intro by Hall alone, setting up the mood and tempo dramatically. Giuffre and Brookmeyer faithfully state the familiar melody mostly in harmony, with Hall supplying an even chunk-chunk of Count Basie-style 4/4 rhythm underneath the theme. This sets the pattern for what ensues and it’s worth noting that Hall’s overt rhythmic accompaniment represented something of a departure for a Giuffre-led band. He first dispensed with the drums and then the bass in his groups because he grew weary of explicitly stated time, preferring an implied pulse. But he moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1957, just as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins were achieving pre-eminence. Exposure to their music – more visceral and hard-swinging, but still deeply inventive – may have had some influence on him in this regard.
At any rate, Giuffre solos first on “Topsy”, his woody, Pres-inflected clarinet spinning four choruses. Brookmeyer follows with three typically burry, droll choruses of his own. Hall supports them throughout with a stunning demonstration of rhythm-guitar artistry. He was always a marvelous rhythm player and an outspoken admirer of other great ones such as Freddie Green, Herb Ellis and Barry Galbraith. In fact, Hall once said that if jazz history was boiled down to its essence, we would be left with just Freddie Green sitting under a tree playing “chang-chang-chang-chang” on his trusty Gibson.
It may sound heretical, but this performance suggests that maybe it should be Jim Hall sitting under that tree. He doesn’t merely supply standard rhythm-guitar, he becomes a full-service rhythm section by offering an amazing range of textures, weights and densities. At first his approach sounds like conventional Basie-Green with one chord struck four times per bar, but as the solos build, this changes. He begins to offer chords moving on every beat with bass lines underneath, creating a very mobile, smooth effect. At times he becomes more aggressive and choppy with the deeper-toned aspect of this, sounding like a bassist with handfuls of overtones in tow. At other points he shifts to higher-voiced chords strummed lightly, sounding like wire brushes on a snare. He also keeps things from growing monotonous by breaking up the pulse at the ends of eight-bar phrases or choruses, spurring the soloists on like a good drummer would. All the while he’s also supplying flawless harmonic motion, making the whole thing sound easy as pie. But here’s the thing: even with all the textural variety Hall’s rhythm-playing provides, the tempo doesn’t budge one hair. At this tempo, one chorus takes between 47 and 48 seconds and this remains absolutely constant throughout the entire performance. This confirms something that Terry Clarke, who played drums regularly with Hall for 35 years, once told me: that Jim Hall had very firm and consistent time, perfect time.
As if all this alchemy wasn’t enough, Brookmeyer winds down and suddenly Hall is left on his own to fashion a solo. There’s a brief moment of suspended anticipation when the listener may wonder: what will Hall do? Or, perhaps being understandably tuckered out after all that strumming, what can he do? A more conventional guitarist might have opted for a solo of single-note lines interspersed with some self-comping chords, but Hall often passed on such obvious solutions. Perhaps reasoning that the listener has already heard seven choruses of lines backed by relentless 4/4, Hall instead goes for contrast. Taking advantage of the sudden silence and space, he begins to spin a ruminative, abstract kind of fugue with a suspended feeling and canonical overtones, the two horns occasionally offering hushed commentary and backgrounds.
It consists of two main motifs: 1) – tight little note-clusters and small chords descending from or ascending to a fixed note above, underpinned by 2) – a lower single-note ostinato grouped rhythmically in threes. Almost casually, Hall develops a series of variations from this simple template until the solo is a cathedral – nuanced, imposing and inevitable. In the bridge of his first chorus he plays some big open–sounding chords in various inversions, each ringing with a plangent thrill. It’s as though he’s backing a solo that isn’t there and his accompaniment becomes the solo. It’s gently dissonant and as Hall builds into his third chorus it becomes increasingly suspenseful, almost ominous. By his fourth and final chorus he breaks the tension by adding more lines and some cluster chords. He grows more quiet but builds to a closing crescendo, preparing for more rhythm work as the horns do some trading. All in all, his solo is a very organic piece of compositional improvising, one worthy of great modern guitar composers like Villa-Lobos or Rodrigo, except that it achieves something they couldn’t: it swings.
One wonders whether such a beautifully designed and audacious solo was fully improvised or gradually worked up over repeated performances of “Topsy”. In the end it doesn’t matter, because Hall’s poised execution makes it seem spontaneous and his sure control here is equal to that of anyone who ever played the instrument. Given Hall’s tireless spadework before his solo, this is one of the most heroic guitar performances ever. It’s made all the more so because it was achieved without stacks of Marshall amplifiers, digital gizmos, whammy bars, crushed velvet bell-bottoms or any of the other usual trappings of guitar “heavyosity”. When this was recorded, Hall looked like a math teacher at an undistinguished small-town college. With his egg-shaped, balding head, accountant’s glasses, pasty complexion and nervously over-eager grin, he was living proof that sometimes the hippest stuff comes in the squarest-looking packages.
Here is “Topsy” in all its glory. For the full effect it should be heard in its entirety, but at 11:28, it’s a long track. For those who are double-parked, Hall’s solo begins around the 6:27 mark:
I could probably write a semiweekly blog for the rest of my life about nothing but great Jim Hall moments on records. As I admire his playing so much and I’ve enjoyed writing this, I may return with some shorter installments on other favourite Hall performances, on his own and with the likes of Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Art Farmer and others with Giuffre. There’s no end to them. For many musicians it’s often a case of another day, another dollar. For Jim Hall, it was more like another day, another gem.
* As mentioned earlier, a lot of funny stories encircled Jim Hall in his career and this one about the Chicago bassist Jim Atlas is a good example. I first heard it many years ago and it appears in Bill Crow’s great book of stories, Jazz Anecdotes. Hall and Giuffre moved to New York sometime in late 1957, but the trio’s bassist Ralph Pena was unwilling to join them owing to studio commitments in L.A. They needed a bassist but Giuffre didn’t know many musicians in New York, so Hall recommended Jim Atlas, who he thought might be a good fit. Giuffre was quite picky about who he played with, so when he called Atlas he didn’t hire him outright but offered him train fare, expenses and a week’s salary to rehearse with the trio; in effect an extended, paid audition. So Atlas took the train to New York and spent a week playing with Giuffre and Hall. Evidently they recorded a little, because two pieces with Atlas – “The Green Country (New England Mood)” and “Forty-Second Street” – turn up on the CD release of the group’s first record The Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Pena on all other tracks. Despite this, things didn’t quite work out and Giuffre informed Atlas that he was going in another direction, perhaps already looking ahead to Brookmeyer’s horn as a third voice. Atlas was disappointed but there were no hard feelings, he’d been treated fairly. This occurred in the very infancy of the space race and typically, Atlas was so wrapped up in learning Giuffre’s music that he hadn’t paid any attention to current events. The day before he left to return to Chicago, the U.S. launched its first rocket – called the Atlas – into space. The next day Atlas went to Grand Central Station to catch the train home and saw all the papers at the newsstands screaming the same headline – ATLAS FIRED! He thought to himself, “Boy, word sure travels fast in New York…”
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