Jim Hall: The Elegant Guitarist
“ I think of breathing, rather than just playing a million notes. A phrase should have a destination. ”
There's good news and better news for the many fans of guitar great Jim Hallcounted among them a number of established guitarists who are, themselves, eminent. It would be hard to find a guitarist who doesn't look up to Hall and whose playing has not been influenced by him in some way. Players relish Hall's rich soundthe interesting melodic and harmonic ideas, the way he lets music breathe, the phrasing. The good news is that his most recent recording, the double CD Hemispheres came out in the latter part of 2008 on ArtistShare, teaming Hall with the amazing Bill Frisell.
On the first disc, the two weave their magic, playing duets in an intimate room that is part of bassist Tony Sherr's apartment in Brooklyn. On the second disc, the guitar masters are joined by the ever-sensitive Scott Colley on bass and Joey Baron on drums for further explorations of all facetsall hemispheresof improvisation. Originals, free-flowing improvisations and standards are all under investigation. The better news is that after back surgery in 2008, following some complications, Hall, 78, is back touring again, starting with a gig at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in February 2009, and then a tour in Japan. It's been about a year since Hall has been able to get out to play.
Hall and Frisell have played together a bit over the years. In Frisell, Hall finds a partner whose guitar work is also a big influence on musicians of his era and younger. Frisell, as a teenager, "took lessons from me for a few weeks," says Hall. Yet there is a sense of adventure and surprise in Frisell's playing that attracts Hall. "I literally laugh out loud when I go out and hear Bill play. I never know what's going to come out," he says. "Bill and I worked with a quartetI think it was at the [Village] Vanguard [in New York City], years ago. I left all my electronic do-dads at home. I was the straight man.
"That's pretty much what I did on this double CD. It was marvelous. Bill and I were sitting on a couch, almost shoulder to shoulderit was that closelistening and reacting. It worked out really well. Maybe the first session was a little bit tentative. Then we got into it," says Hall.
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The duet portions were recorded in cozy quarters in five sessions over the latter half of 2007. The musicians and producer Brian Camelio of ArtistShare took their time revisiting the music and subjecting it to scrutiny before returning for more recording. A lot of music, including versions of standards like "My Man's Gone Now" and "Pannonica," was recorded. However, the sessions were trimmed to 10 selections for the CD release, including Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," which was new to Hall, but a song whose lyrics he found appealing and applicable to today's world. There's a tender treatment of Hall's "All Across the City," a serene ballad with soft, sympathetic playing. "Bags' Groove" is fairly straight, swinging. Each guitarist makes his statement understated, but musical.
On "Migration," the longest free improvisation, spacey effects from Frisell lend an ethereal feel. Hall saunters through that background in a calm and amusing fashion, never becoming boisterous. "Beijing Blues" is a short, playful exchange over a bouncing blues riff. Says Hall, "'Migrations' goes on for almost 15 minutes. That was a free association piece. At first that seemed like it needed to be cut down. Then we thought, "What the heck, leave it." I like the way it went. I think the communication got to be really excellent, mostly out of respect, sitting that close to one another and listening and reacting and not worrying about whether the record company is going to ask us to play 'Tea for Two' or something like that."
With ArtistShare, musicians have control over what goes into a recording and much greater control of the product once it is released. It was Camelio who came up with the Hall-Frisell duet idea, says Hall. Then, "It felt to both Bill and me that maybe the duet stuff needed a little beefing up, so I was able to go into the studio with Bill, Joey Baron and Scott Colley. We did the quartet stuff there, which I think helped balance it out."
Hall has a history with both rhythm section matesBaron with a trio he formed that had Steve LaSpina on bass, and Colley at various times in intimate settings, as well as on the 2004 ArtistShare album Magic Meeting. "Both Scott and Joey can go in any direction. Scott can play really beautiful straight rhythm bass on standard tunes and he can alsoI hate to call it free improvisationbut just listening and reacting no matter what comes up, whether it's a shape or a free-form piece. Joey's the same way."
The setting for the quartet changed to Sear Sound in New York City, and the sound was engineered by Joe Ferla. It was done in one day, and only a few weeks before the CD was to be released. They kept the atmosphere intimate.
"The setup in the studio was marvelous," says Hall. "We tried it in a different studio before. There were all kinds of separating pieces of glass. It was not what we meant to do. But when we recorded for Hemispheres, I was literally so close to Joey Baron I could reach out and touch the cymbals. That was the feeling we wanted with that group."
That intimacy is immediately apparent with "I'll Remember April," with Baron laying down a beautiful samba-like rhythm on brushes, and Colley's rich sound on the bass adding the perfect punctuations. The guitarists get to prance on that foundation and do so in fine fashion. Colley's solo is delicious. There's a lushness to "Chelsea Bridge" that creates a swoon. "My Funny Valentine," on the other hand, is not melancholic but it has more swing and the improvised lines give it a different feel. "Sonnymoon for Two" finds the guitarists speaking back and forth, exuberant, on the Sonny Rollins bop vehicle. The soloing, then underlying support, of each guitar is exceptional.
"The [quartet] interaction is a bit different. But there again, with those two guysScott and Joeyit took the form of pretty much what Bill and I had been doing as a duo, only stretched out a little among four instead of two," says Hall. He says that by the time of the quartet session, he had recovered from the back surgery, but "there was not much time to do any composition. I wish there had been more original, unusual material in the quartet thing. But the fact that we did that many standards probably helped balance the thing out. I did that one [original], 'Owed to Freddie Green,' which I get a kick out of."
Jim Hall and Bill Frisell
Hall is pleased with the double-disk recording. It's not Hall's first ArtistShare project. Magic Meeting, with Colley and Lewis Nash, came out "when I was between contracts with Telarc. They had been great to me, but I needed something in a hurry. I was working at the Vanguard and I wanted to record it. They weren't able to come up with anything. Somehow, the ArtistShare idea with Brian seemed like a forward-looking move to me, because obviously record companies were in trouble. This was quite a while before the financial mess we've entered recently. Brian [Camelio] was a good friend, so it seemed a right way to go. It's worked out fine." The duet recording with the wonderful pianist Geoffrey Keezer, Free Association was next in 2006.