“ I think my way of helping myself is that I try to really tune in to the others playing, in order to make the unit sound complete. ”
Over the course of his near 50 years in jazz, there is little ground guitarist Jim Hall has not yet covered. From his stints as sideman for Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer, to his countless recordings and tours as leader, Hall has established himself as a veritable jazz institution. And yet despite the breadth of his past exploits, Hall remains as dynamic and productive a player, composer and arranger as ever. In the last decade alone, the unassuming guitarist has released a remarkable nine albums for Telarc Records. No small feat. Jim and his trusty dog Django recently met with AAJ-NY in the den-cum-music room of his quaint West Village apartment.
All About Jazz: Your openness and modesty have long been a hallmark of your playing. Do you think it is important for musicians to be aware of their limitations?
Jim Hall: Yeah, I do. Interestingly, I haven't run into a whole lot of self-centeredness. It's good to have a good sense of one's self. For me it's like a carrot on a string: it's always out there, just out of reach. There's always something new to discover.
AAJ: Do you still get frustrated? Say you're on the bandstand, does it ever feel like your expressions are constricted?
JH: Well, I think my way of helping myself is that I try to really tune in to the others playing, in order to make the unit sound complete. But sure I get frustrated. And then occasionally, I'll finish a night or a set or a tune, and think to myself, "That was okay."
AAJ: How would you describe your role in the ensembles you lead?
JH: I'm really strongly aware of not wanting to fall into a form where there's guitar solo, and then [saxophonist] Greg Osby plays a solo, and then there's a bass solo, and then okay...drums! So I try to break that up. Jimmy Giuffre was great at that. In fact, I think that Jimmy saw the trio we played in as a mobile - with a different facet up front all the time. And it really never sounded like a guitar in the background, or a trombone in the background, or clarinet. It always felt like a unit.
AAJ: You're known as being an especially skilled accompanist. How do you approach this element of your playing?
JH: With Giuffre, he would write little accompaniment parts for me. And I got so I would listen to the texture of the sound, and try to add to it. I love playing rhythm guitar - Freddie Green is my hero - and I play rhythm, a lot of the time, behind a bass solo. I turn my volume way down, so it gives the bassist, I hope, something to react to. And I try not to get in his way. You know, I had these two great lucky things happen to me. One was with Sonny Rollins, and the other was with Art Farmer. Now with Art, I felt that he kind of liked to hear a chord, and then play over it. Sort of comping like a piano. Whereas I felt that Sonny would get annoyed if I tried to lead him harmonically so I'd lay back a second or so, hear where he was going, and then follow. Then the duet playing helped a lot too. Ron Carter has a very harmonic sense so I would stay out of his bass line register, and just build chords off the top. So a lot of it was conscious.
AAJ: How did you approach your collaboration with Bill Evans?
JH: Oddly enough, Bill loved me to play straight rhythm. Bill was so aware of texture that he would almost automatically not use his left hand. Because he would figure, "well, that's covered", and just move on. So I've been aware of accompanying all along, but then sometimes nothing works. I love Joe Lovano - he's an amazing guy, and he's really influenced my playing -but sometimes Joe will play those lengthy solos, and I just run out of ideas. I think, "well, this is getting boring, what I'm playing." So I lay out. (laughs) I get bored with myself!
AAJ: How did you and Sonny Rollins first get together? You were in the midst of a pretty hard spell, work-wise, no?
JH: Yeah, exactly. I was living right down the block here, in a sublet. Sonny had just gotten off of a two year hiatus - trying to get his playing together.
AAJ: Playing on bridges.
JH: Yeah. (laughs) And nothing much was happening. It was weird, because I had done some records, and stuff like that. Well, it felt like nothing much was happening. Anyway, I had met Sonny a few times. I met him when he was with Max Roach and Clifford Brown, and I saw him a few times on the road. So one day I got a note from him in my mailbox. It said, almost word for word, "Dear Jim, I'd like to talk to you about music." So I went down to where he lived. Oh, he must have left an address. He lived right down near the Williamsburg Bridge. And I left him a note saying that I'd love to talk, and that I was home a lot.
AAJ: Amazing that neither of you had a phone.
JH: Mine was turned off. I probably hadn't paid for it. And at the time Sonny was kind of self-contained, or secretive - not aloof at all, but just kind of solitary. Anyhow, we made an arrangement to meet. So the doorbell rang, and we sat down - sort of like we're doing now - and he put this little plastic bag on the table. Anyway, we began to talk, and I noticed the bag started vibrating. So I said, "Sonny, what's in that bag?" He said, "we'll talk about that later, first thing's first." So we talked, and meanwhile the bag continued to move and vibrate. Afterward, he opened it and inside was a little lizard or chameleon he had just bought. He said, "Isn't he great?" (laughs) But he wasn't going to get off the subject before we were done. Isn't that great? That's the kind of mind he has.
AAJ: Let's talk a little about your sound on guitar. Some have called it "warm", "mellow", "rich", "pure toned". How would you describe it?
JH: My concept has changed a bit over the years. It's probably closer to the kind of tenor saxophone that Ben Webster played, or Paul Gonsalves. That's what I really hear, a tenor sax sound. You can really get expression out of it. Ben Webster's playing was so incredibly expressive. So I try to keep the strings low enough, soft enough, so that I can not so much bend notes, but get some inflection on the notes. I also leave out a lot of the right hand work. Jimmy Giuffre got me equipped for, I think, more musical phrasing. So there's not all those attacks - which I couldn't do anyway. It's probably more of a melodic sound. But I think especially since becoming a leader, I get bored with just the same sound all night. I try not to overuse them, but I have a bunch of foot pedals now and that sort of throws my brain into a different orbit.
AAJ: Do you think the sound comes from the instrument or the technique, or both?
JH: I think the sound comes from the person. I heard Oscar Moore once when he was with the Nat Cole Trio, in Cleveland. He had a great guitar, I think it was an Epiphone, and this terrific amplifier. He sounded incredible. Then, when I moved to Los Angeles, I heard him in a club with really schlocky stuff, and he sounded exactly the same! So I think the sound also has to do with the musician's personality.
AAJ: On a few of your recent albums, Dialogues for one, you've recorded duets with a second guitar. Do you approach these differently?
JH: I got Bill Frisell and Mike Stern specifically because they played so differently from me. They're completely different from one another too. When I go hear Bill play, I literally laugh because I never know what the hell's going to come out of him. Same thing with Mike. And that's another reason why I called Greg Osby. I figured they were going to prod my brain a little bit, make me think differently.
AAJ: Lewis Nash will be your drummer at the Vanguard this month - what about his playing appeals to you?
JH: Everything. I first heard him when he was with Tommy Flanagan. He does all those things we've been talking about. He's able to accompany guitar beautifully; he listens incredibly well, and can adjust to the volume; he plays differently behind each soloist; his solos are incredibly clear, distinct. His playing is just clear as anything. Plus, he's also easy to get along with in a van on the road!
AAJ: Scott Colley will be your bassist for the gig.
JH: I had worked with Steve LaSpina for years, and Steve was going to take some time off and go back to school, get a degree. And he recommended Scott. I had never heard him or met him, or anything. Jane [Hall's wife] and I had just been to hear the Philharmonic, and they had played Shostakovich's 4th Symphony. It was really wild - I think it was the first time I had heard it. And there's a section in it where everything stops, and the string section - starting with the bassist and the cellos - go completely wild. So Scott was going to come over and rehearse, and I cued that up on the machine. I'd never even met him. And he came in, I offered him some coffee and said, "I'll play you some of the stuff I've been thinking about doing." So he sat down and he heard that, and he was great, he said, "well, that will be fine. Don't even bother to write it out." (laughs) So right then I thought, "I want to work with this guy." He can read like mad, he has a terrific memory. If he showed up without his music, he would get through it somehow. And he can go in any direction - he just listens to you and goes there. And he plays in tune, gets a good sound.
AAJ: Have the three of you played before?
JH: You know, I've never played with Scott and Lewis together. So I'm just going to watch it develop. I'm going to try to keep it loose. It'll have to be loose with the three of us. Scott and Lewis and I are supposed to go to Japan next year, so it seemed like a good idea to get us together for this. The last time I worked in a trio was with Scott and Terry Clarke, and that worked out great - but this time, I think I'd like to mix these two guys and see what happens.