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Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Jim Hall Duo at Chicago Symphony Center

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Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Jim Hall Duo
Symphony Center, Chicago
October 7, 2005
As jazz double bills go, the Jim Hall Duo and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra seem rather ill-matched. Veteran guitarist Hall's duo with bassist Scott Colley is an exercise in quiet; the third member of this extraordinary pair is the silence that underlines their musical comminication. The Los Angeles-based CHJO, meanwhile, are a 19-piece big band that the deafest audience member can hear and the most musically indifferent patron enjoy—it's not that they lack subtlety, but they're all about vibrant and audible swing.
Nonetheless, as co-billed performers on the Chicago Symphony Center's Jazz at Symphony Center series, the two groups combined to make a very satisfying evening of jazz. One can quibble at a player of Hall's stature opening for anyone, but the physical laws of live performance simply prohibit a set of quiet duo interplay following a stomping big band, so the Jim Hall Duo were where they should have been in the order of things.
Hall and Colley onstage made for quite a visual contrast; the elderly Hall stood stooped over his guitar while the imposingly tall Colley, dressed entirely in black, towered above him. Hall seemed slightly tentative on the set opener, "Dream Step (a tune based on "You Stepped Out of a Dream ), seeming to be searching for his way as he searched for the proper tone on his effects unit as Colley played a remarkable, continuous bass line. But there was no hesitation on "Bent Blue, a brittle blues tribute to silent film star Ben Blue, as Hall twanged out the song's intro with a delicate, crystalline tone, then poured out a plethora of spidery, insinuating lines. His light chordal comping alongside Colley's solo was quintessentially Hall, and completely wonderful.

Hall really excels in duo settings and "Bent Blue was as good an example as any of the unspoken but so-palpable swing that surrounds his playing; neither he nor Colley had to state tempo overtly for this swing to thrive—I looked down to find my toe tapping a vibrant tempo that wasn't being played. The set continued with a gorgeous "All the Things You Are, with its impossibly elegant Colley bass line and luminous Hall solo that again morphed into sublime chordal comping over Colley's singing solo. "Ouagadougou , inspired by a friend of Hall's from Burkina Faso, had an ominous yet grooving bass vamp from Colley and playful, somersaulting figures from Hall, and Holley took the lead melody on Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain —no acoustic bassist today's got such a distinctly warm and wooden tone.

The high point of the set might have been a snaky, angular cover of Sonny Rollins' calypso classic "St. Thomas, Hall's guitar imbued with a rather appropriate steel-drum tone for the heads that contrasted nicely with his so-clean, no-effect chordal sound elsewhere in the tune. A Colley solo turned into a romping two-man musical race that culminated in the crisp, shimmering theme—pretty wonderful.

Compared to Hall and Colley, the 19 musicians of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra looked like a veritable army as they took the stage, but they didn't sound like one; they sounded like the best big band on earth. The group's co-led by drummer Jeff Hamilton, reeds player Jeffrey Clayton and arranger/conductor/bassist John Clayton, and all three were in excellent form.

John Clayton carried his bass onstage, but for the most part it lay unused; Christoph Luty did the lion's share of the bass work as John Clayton conducted the band, and his playing was above reproach (the conductor did take up own his bass for some gorgeous, vibrato-flavored arco work on Johnny Mandel's "Emily , and at times during the set the two bassists played together, creating some fascinating two-bass effects). John Clayton writes some of the best big-band charts in the business, but his conducting is as lively and engaging as any chart he's ever done; he gracefully prances in front of the players, gesticulating and cueing, standing up on his tiptoes as if to pull music out of the musicians—it's fun to watch.

Horace Silver's classic "The Jody Grind seemed even to surpass the group's live recorded version on their excellent Live at MCG CD; it started out on a large scale and got even bigger and louder, all hard bop boogaloo and emphatic precision swing. Rickey Woodward's beat-straddling tenor solo was pretty perfect, yet it was equalled by trombonist Ryan Porter's testifying, bluesy break over crisp, stoptime ensemble accents.

There couldn't be a more powerful swing drummer than Jeff Hamilton, but he's also one of the finest brush players in jazz, and his brushwork on "Back Home Again in Indiana ("maybe this title's not appropriate for Chicago, John Clayton mused. "For tonight, we'll rename it 'Indiana Sucks' ) was dazzling as he produced metronomic snare rolls under a glowing peacock's tail of group reeds, muted brass and Jeffrey Clayton's flute.

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