Jim Hall

Though not a universally recognized household name like Miles Davis or Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck, Jim Hall is a guitarist whose name is spoken with universal reverence by jazz musicians and fans. He got his start during the 1950s, when “cool” jazz was the dominant style, and his warm, dry tone and incisive melodicism allowed him both to fit snugly into that movement and to begin gently expanding it from within. His work with Jimmy Giuffre’s ensemble in the latter years of that decade provided a glimpse of what was to come throughout a long and storied career: like Giuffre, Hall was among the finest players of straight-ahead modern jazz – but at the same time both were always reaching out in more experimental directions as well.

That stylistic restlessness eventually brought Hall into the orbit of Gunther Schuller and the Third Stream movement – an attempt to create a seamless fusion of jazz and classical music. Though Third Stream never really broke out in any commercial way, it did produce some wonderful music. Hall played guitar on Schuller’s Jazz Abstractions album, which included a Hall composition for jazz guitar and string quartet as well as Schuller’s sets of variations on jazz themes by John Lewis and Thelonious Monk for chamber orchestra. Hall’s mid-1960s recordings in a duo setting with pianist Bill Evans (Undercurrent and Intermodulation) stayed more within the bounds of jazz convention, but nevertheless continued to push the boundaries and redefine the relationship between solo and ensemble playing.

By this point in his career it was becoming clear that what Hall enjoyed most was playing in small, intimate ensembles and usually without a drummer. Many of the recordings he made with Giuffre were drummerless trio sessions on which the only players were Hall, Giuffre, and a bass player or trombonist, and throughout the remainder of his career he would regularly take detours from recording with larger and more conventional ensembles to work in the duo format. For example, in 1979 he performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival alongside the celebrated valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer; his 1981 album First Edition finds him working one-on-one with pianist George Shearing, and on a 1999 duo album with guitarist Pat Metheny the two alternate between original compositions, standards, and multiple interludes of pure improvisation.

Hall was notable for a quiet and unassuming personality that combined with his sharp intellect to create a musical style that was simultaneously searching, expansive, and approachable. His playing could be challenging, but it was never less than warm and he never indulged in noise for noise’s sake – at the same time, even when he was playing the most straight-ahead and mainstream jazz, you could always hear him nudging the stylistic walls, sometimes slyly incorporating non-jazz elements into his solos and sometimes simply making harmonic statements you never could have predicted. And sometimes he did all of those things within the course of a single solo. Whether as a leader or a sideman, Jim Hall always made music that rewarded your attention – and did it with gentle wit and quiet joy.

Charlie Haden / Jim Hall cover

Bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Jim Hall both famously loved performing and recording in the duo format, so this concert recording was probably inevitable. The performance came as part of Haden’s Invitation series at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and it finds them doing what they both loved: playing both standards and originals with the unique blend of respect for tradition and desire to break it down that characterized both of them. It’s Haden’s genius as a bassist to be able to play solos that non-bassists actually want to listen to; it’s Hall’s genius to recognize that he can actually lay out during those solos — and to know exactly how to pick up on Haden’s ideas when it’s his turn.

Jazz Guitar cover

Jim Hall’s debut album as a leader perfectly encapsulated his musical personality in multiple ways: the title (Jazz Guitar) is simultaneously bold and simple, unassuming and assertive; the instrumental format he chose (a drummerless trio with pianist Carl Perkins and bassist Red Mitchell) looked forward to many similarly intimate recordings he would make in the future; the all-standards program (beginning with that most familiar of chestnuts, “Stomping’ at the Savoy”) signaled his love of jazz tradition and his determination to push its boundaries. It doesn’t sound like a warning shot across the bow of jazz guitar, but that’s just what this album would turn out to be.

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny cover

Although Pat Metheny is known as a pioneer of two contemporary jazz styles — jazz fusion and the ECM sound — anyone who has spent a lot of time listening to jazz guitar will recognize his debt to Jim Hall, who came to prominence during the “cool” era and subsequently gently expanded jazz’s stylistic boundaries. Although both of them made very different kinds of music throughout their careers, they were in many ways an obvious and a natural match. On this duo album they play a mix of standards, originals, and duo improvisations in a variety of styles, and always sound like they’re smiling at each other.

Live At The North Sea Jazz Festival cover

Guitarist Jim Hall and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, both of whom emerged as major jazz figures during the “cool” jazz era of the 1950s, made this quietly gorgeous live recording at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague in 1979. One might expect a spare and minimal sound from this instrumental configuration, but Hall’s guitar fills in the vertical harmonic spaces nicely and the dark, warm timbre of Brookmeyer’s trombone makes everything sound rich and well developed. There are moments of improvised counterpoint here that are nothing short of hair-raisingly beautiful.

Intermodulation cover

Intermodulation continues the two-man conversation that was begun several years earlier with Undercurrent. Pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall, both by this point towering figures in the post-cool jazz firmament, basically pick up where they had left off, exploring the standards book but bringing their unique sensibilities to the familiar melodies. One of the most impressive accomplishments of this album is the degree to which they manage to swing powerfully without the help of a rhythm section — note in particular the propulsive vibe they create on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Each is as fine an accompanist as he is a soloist.

Magic Meeting cover

Recorded at New York’s legendary Village Vanguard club during a multi-night stand that lasted from April 30 to May 2, 2004, Magic Meeting finds guitarist Jim Hall teamed up with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash – a magic meeting indeed. It also finds him operating in more experimental tonal territory than usual, his dark and warm tone displaced by aggressive chorusing (on “Bent Blue” and also to some degree on “Blackwell’s Message”) “Canto Naruda” is a lovely Latin excursion, while his contemplative take on “Body and Soul” demonstrates his unparalleled ability to take a familiar tune and make it his own.

John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions cover

This 1961 recording is perhaps the most significant expression of what would come to be called the “Third Stream” movement, an attempt to fuse jazz and classical music conventions into something new and unique. While the movement itself never really took off, it did yield some intriguing and occasionally magnificent music; on this album there’s a thoughtful chamber-jazz composition by Jim Hall for guitar and string quartet, as well as modern classical explorations of musical themes by John Lewis and Thelonious Monk.

Grand Slam: Live at the Regattabar, Cambridge Massachusetts cover

This quartet line-up, led by guitarist Jim Hall, is basically a jazz supergroup: Hall, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Lewis Nash. The set opens with a tour de force: a twelve-and-a-half-minute composition titled “Slam” that finds the group exploring melodic themes in a freer style than one would normally expect, and that tendency continues throughout the remainder of the program; the knottily complex head on “Border Crossing” gives way to some harmonically wild solos (check out Hall’s parallel-interval extravaganza), and on the aptly titled “Feel Free” things get really quite wild. This is an all-originals set featuring pieces composed by Hall and Lovano.

Jim Hall & Basses cover

Guitarist Jim Hall always loved working in a duo format, from his monumental albums with pianist Bill Evans to his explorations with Pat Metheny and Enrico Pieranunzi. But the format he kept returning to was guitar and bass – and on this album, it’s guitar and a rotating all-star cast of bassists (including Christian McBride, George Mraz, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland). As is so often the case, we get some duo improvisations, as well as beautifully rendered standards and original compositions – everyone sounds amazing together.

Undercurrent cover

Pianist and composer Bill Evans was famous for a playing style that was as big and orchestral as that of, say, Errol Garner, but more restrained and impressionistic (one might say that Evans was the Chopin to Garner’s Schumann). He was a natural fit for guitarist Jim Hall, whose tonal warmth obscured a restless and searching intellectuality. On both Undercurrent and the subsequent Intermodulation, the two conduct a musical conversation that was highly unusual for the time and remains a monument of thoughtful, exploratory jazz.

Duologues cover

Most of guitarist Jim Hall’s duo albums stay fairly close to the jazz mainstream. This one, on which he teams up with pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, is a bit of an outlier. The music they make together isn’t exactly “outside” (as the jazz cats say), but some of it is pretty spiky and some of the change-ups are startling – check the transition from the angular “Carefull” [sic] to the sweetly balladic “From E. to C.,” for example. The tracks titled “Duologue” seem to be duo improvisations; everything sounds like a spirited and friendly conversation.