Jim Hall: Undercurrents

Guitarist Jim Hall Doulogues Through the Years

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Jim Hall
By Alan Nahigian
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Jim Hall
By John Abbott

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On a sunny autumn afternoon in Greenwich Village, a kindly looking gentleman with spectacles and white mustache leads a peppy little Shih Tzu dog around on a leash. Many of the residents in this charming neighborhood know him as a local. Workers at the Jefferson Market wave to him as he strolls by. To them, he's the sweet, elderly chap with the twinkling eyes, quick smile and a dog named Django. To jazz fans, and especially guitar aficionados, he's a giant--a revered elder who has played on a spate of historically important recordings.

At home in his apartment on West 12th Street, Jim Hall is reminiscing about fabled sessions and legendary colleagues, many of whom have passed away. Black-and-white pictures of himself with fellow guitarists Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney line one shelf. On another shelf is a nostalgic photo of Sonny Rollins' quartet in action, circa 1962, with a young Hall, Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins on the bandstand. Hanging on the wall is a framed photograph of Hall's wife, Jane, dancing with Duke Ellington at the White House's 1969 tribute to jazz. "I found out later that Duke disliked Nixon so much that he wasn't even going to go to that thing," Hall says. "He actually had booked another gig so he could sneak out, but I think his manager talked him into staying."

Looking back is not something that Hall is accustomed to doing, though on this afternoon he kindly obliges a writer. "I'm more involved in today," he offers while settling into an easy chair. "My nostalgia is for the future rather than the past. I feel about the same as I would if I were a writer or a painter in that you want to allow yourself to grow a little bit every day. I like a lot of the things I've done in the past, but as I like to say, 'The past is a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.'"

At 75, Hall remains ever active and forward looking. The guitarist was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, and his career has spanned 50 years and includes stellar collaborations with legends like Rollins, Bill Evans, Chico Hamilton, John Lewis, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre and Zoot Sims. "The age thing is funny," Hall says while petting Django, who alternately sits in the guitarist's lap and roughhouses with chew-toys on the floor. "Because I feel like, if anything, I have more to work with now than I ever did. I keep hearing more music. And I'm allowed generally to pretty much do what I feel like doing these days, which lately has been these free-association type of pieces."

That aesthetic is readily apparent on two stellar new releases that highlight Hall at the top of his risk-taking form. Duologues (CamJazz), recorded in September 2004 in Milan, is an encounter with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi that ranges from aggressive romps like "The Point at Issue" and "Our Valentines" to introspective ballads like "Something Tells Me," "From E. to C." and "Dreamlogue," which showcase the guitarist's fragile, walking-on-eggshells elegance and penchant for melodic improvisation. Three free-form "Duologues" also showcase their remarkable spontaneous chemistry.

Hall displays an even more provocative streak on the aptly titled Free Association (ArtistShare.com) with pianist Geoffrey Keezer. Brimming with spiky dissonance and inside-the-piano gestures by Keezer, and marked by intensive freewheeling abstraction throughout, this encounter with the former Jazz Messenger and Ray Brown sideman is a wild ride for both artists. "Geoff is a stunning player," says Hall. "He's a very progressive and wide-open musician. I think he was 18 when he played with the Blakey band, so he has that incredible time feeling, which he got from that whole Messengers experience. He doesn't use any effects or synthesizers when we play together but he finds those things on the piano. He plays inside the piano or he'll prepare some of the strings so they sound differently. He gets really creative."

From Keezer's perspective, playing duets with Hall has been an invaluable learning experience. "We'd play and I'd accompany him in the manner that I thought was appropriate, and he would say, in just the nicest way possible, 'Hey, Geoff, that was great, I dig what you're playing--but do you think that we could make a little more space, kind of thin it out a little bit?' And I'd say, 'Yeah, sure Jim, OK.' So the next night I would thin it out as much as I thought it was possible to do but still feel like I was there. And again he would say, 'Yeah, that was great, but I think we could find a way to just leave a little more space in the music.' And I began to think, 'Wow, if I leave anymore space I'm gonna just vaporize.' But I would just leave even more space, and this process would go on night after night. And what I found out was I was able to create a lot more space in the music than I ever thought was possible. He's certainly a master at that.

"Playing music with Jim is a very conscious process at all times," Keezer says. "There's no autopilot allowed, or even possible. Because if you autopilot for one second, you'll just fall out of the sky and land in a smoldering heap. You have to really pay attention when you play with him. But it's not so intellectual that the audience can't get what we're doing. When Jim plays he has that kind of command of people's attention and energy. He reminds me of one of those martial-arts masters who can make people fly across the room without even touching them."

On the adventurous opener "End the Beguine"--which the guitarist previously recorded in 2001 on 12-string in a duet with Dave Holland on Jim Hall & Basses (Telarc)--and "A Merry Chase," Hall and Keezer execute playful call-and-response passages and intricate contrapuntal lines. The dissonant extrapolation "Counter Transference" and the turbulent "Ouagadougou" (named for the capital city of the West African republic of Burkina Faso) show a penchant for pushing the envelope, which has kept Hall eternally young. And on "Furnished Flats" (the lone live track, recorded at Birdland), Hall reveals a towering influence in quoting from Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven" (a tune that he also covered on Jazz Guitar, his 1957 debut recording as a leader on Pacific Jazz).

On two pieces--a poignant rendition of Riyuichi Sakamoto's gorgeous samba "Bibo No Aozora" and the title track--Hall displays the kind of delicate introspection and sublime lyricism that have become his trademark and influenced a generation of guitar players, including Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick.

It was, of course, Undercurrent, Hall's landmark 1962 recording with Bill Evans, that set the standard for piano-guitar duets. "With Bill, he had such a sense of texture and shape that I felt like he was inside of my brain all the time," Hall says. "He liked me to play rhythm, for example, and as soon as I did that he would automatically stop using his left hand or use it really sparingly, because I guess he sensed that part of the texture was covered for the moment. I'll listen to 'My Funny Valentine' [from Undercurrent] that I did with him once in a while. And I notice that if I get in trouble on my solo on that tune, because it was kind of a zippy tempo, I can just hear him bailing me out and leading me right into the next phrase."

Playing duets is clearly a setting that Hall likes. "Just like in any situation, it depends on the combination of people," he says. "But you're 50 percent of the combo when you're in a duo, and in a lot of ways I prefer that to playing in a larger group where you just sort of stand there grinning for half the time. I enjoy playing in larger groups too, but duets are special. Bill Evans was a perfect duet partner. Geoff Keezer is an amazing player for duets. Scott Colley, who has become another key duets partner, is someone who listens so well and goes in any direction. And Ron Carter, of course, has such a strong harmonic sense that when I played duets with him I found myself listening to where he was going with the bass line and then I would build all my harmony stuff around where he was going with the chord progression. So I think it's really a matter of listening and reacting. And it gets really intense with just two people."

Throughout both Free Association and Duologues, Hall makes liberal use of chorus and harmonizer effects on his guitar, which is a radical departure from the warm-toned purity of his duets with Evans during the '60s. "I resisted those things for years," Hall says. "It's the same way I feel about a lot of things, like cell phones and computers--it's some kind of old-geezer resistance, I guess. But Bob Brookmeyer wrote a piece for orchestra and guitar maybe 15 years ago called 'On the Way to the Sky,' which he composed for the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra and electric guitar. And on that piece he had me playing three different foot pedals--a distortion, a chorus and a harmonizer. That was a real breakthrough for me. It made me realize that you actually could enhance what you were doing with these things, so I got a few of them and began experimenting. One is the chorus pedal, which adds a little echo and fattens up the sound, and the other one is a Whammy pedal, which you can set for different intervals. I think it throws my brain into a different orbit. I try to use it like orchestration, to add a different texture or to keep things interesting or to maybe comment on something. For instance, I might play something straight on electric guitar, then step on the pedal and kind of examine what I just played with, say, a perfect fifth interval, so you get what you just played plus a fifth above it. So I like this foot pedal. The only danger is in overusing it."

Hall is currently working on revamping a major piece for guitar and orchestra that he premiered last year at the World Guitar Congress in Baltimore. "It was supposed to be called 'Peace Movements,'" he explains, "but I only finished one movement, so it's 'Peace Movement.' I did that with the Baltimore Symphony, and I want to work on it some more now that I'm home for a little while."

The dramatic 17-minute work, brimming with intricate counterpoint and dissonant harmonies, recalls his piece "1953 Thesis," which Hall composed as his thesis while in college at the Cleveland Institute of Music--though he had to wait until 1988 to hear it performed, at a Town Hall concert documented on Jim Hall & Friends Live at Town Hall, Vol. 1 (Musicmasters). "Actually, the thing I just wrote for the Baltimore Symphony is in a way not as avant-garde as the thing I wrote in school more than 50 years ago," Hall says. "That [older] piece really reflects my love of Bartok."

Meanwhile, Hall hints that a reunion with Sonny Rollins, who also turned 75 in 2005, is in the works. "We're trying to hook up to do a peace concert together up near Woodstock," he says, adding that he would have more to bring to the table in an encounter with Rollins now than he did back in 1962 when The Bridge was recorded. "I guess part of it is--having been allowed to express myself as a leader for so many years--now I feel encouraged to take things in the direction that I want to move in. I feel more capable, and I'm allowed to call on my earlier listening experiences--like electronic music and free-association pieces, Schonberg and things like that--but still keep it within an improvising mode. So I feel less constrained. I still love to swing, and I still love playing standards. And I still feel very positive and curious about things, musically and otherwise."

Ten Recommended Jim Hall Duets Albums

Free Association with Geoffrey Keezer (ArtistShare.com, 2005)

Duologues with Enrico Pieranunzi (CamJazz, 2005)

Undercurrent with Bill Evans (Blue Note, 1962)

Intermodulation with Bill Evans (Verve, 1966)

The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone, 1967)

Live at the North Sea Festival with Bob Brookmeyer (Challenge, 1999; rec.1979)

Alone Together with Ron Carter (Milestone, 1972)

Live at Village West with Ron Carter (Concord, 1982)

Jim Hall and Red Mitchell (Artists House, 1978)

Jim Hall and Pat Metheny (Telarc, 1999)

Listening Pleasures:

"I really don't listen to records much these days," Hall says. "I'm a fan of silence. So I think if my house was burning down and I had to grab one record, it would be John Cage's '4'33".'"

Gearbox:

Hall still has the D'Aquisto Jim Hall Custom guitar that he had played exclusively since the mid-'70s, but he admits, "It got so I was nervous about taking it out on the road, so I replaced it." His main ax for both touring and recording over the past year and a half is a Roger Sadowsky custom Jim Hall model, which the luthier designed to closely resemble Hall's handsome D'Aquisto guitar.

Hall uses Sadowsky flat-wound strings (gauges .11 to .50), and his effects devices are a Boss chorus pedal and a Digitech Whammy pedal. His preferred amp is a Polytone Mini-Brute. "For years I used a Gibson tube amp and just got used to that sound, but it just got too hectic to travel with it," he says. "I had to pack and repack the tubes every night after a gig. But I also found that my listening concept has changed. The old tube amp was a little bit limiting, though I loved the sound of it. The Polytone is close to a tube-amp sound, but you can also crank it up if you want to and go in any direction."

Originally published in December 2005

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