Jim Hall: Live, Now and Then

Bob Kenselaar By

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I’m hoping to keep writing a bit every day and see what happens. I try to sort of push forward all the time. . . that’s really my basis of performing and being alive.
[ This interview was originally published on July 16, 2013. ]

Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential guitarists in modern jazz, Jim Hall has had an extraordinary musical career that spans more than half a century. His style is marked not by soaring speed or virtuoso technique but by his explorative artistry in improvisation, his solos' beautiful melodic and harmonic construction and his warm and rich tone.

His discography includes more than three dozen recordings as a leader and an equal number as a sideman, including historic collaborations with Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Bill Evans, Art Farmer and Jimmy Giuffre. With Hall's extensive body of work, it would seem unlikely that one recording would stand out above all others, but one album in particular has long had a legendary status: a recording simply titled Jim Hall Live! (Verve, 1975), recorded in Toronto in the fall of 1974 in a trio setting with bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. Pat Metheny, one among many contemporary guitarists who consider Hall a major influence, has said of Jim Hall Live!, "If I had to pick one Jim record, it would be that one. I would go as far as saying there's a consensus there. That was the ideal band, the ideal tunes, the ideal setting."

With three hours of additional recordings from that same stint in Toronto, Jim Hall Live, Vol. 2-4 (ArtistShare, 2012), released for the first time nearly four decades later, is clearly an important addition to Hall's discography. Remarkably, in tandem with this historic box set, Hall has released a recording that documents his recent work, Jim Hall Live at Birdland (ArtistShare, 2012), in which he's joined by saxophonist Greg Osby, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Steve LaSpina, and which was recorded in 2010.

Hall remembers events that led up to the 1974 club date in Toronto vividly. He had made other trips to Canada before then and had brought along other New York-based musicians who made up his trio. "I knew a terrific guitarist in Toronto named Ed Bickert. One night, I wandered over to this jam session at Ed's house, and Terry Clarke and Don Thompson were both there. I said to myself, 'Why am I bringing musicians up here? These guys are great!'"

Thompson brought some recording equipment along for the trio's two- week gig in October at a club called Bourbon Street. "The club was noisy sometimes," recalls Hall. "I think it became strictly a jazz club little by little, but it was also a restaurant, and a couple times the waiters would come out with a cake right close to the bandstand, singing 'Happy Birthday' to someone. But we just had a lot of fun. It's some of my favorite stuff to listen to now, because it's just so loose. We're all exploring together and not particularly taking it seriously. Don had his tape machine on stage the whole time but didn't fully realize that he was recording or just sort of forgot about it. Things worked out pretty well."

Hall credits Brian Camelio of ArtistShare with taking the initiative to release the recordings. "He put the whole thing together. He's also a terrific guitarist, and he's now traveling with me. I had some back surgery not too long ago, and I'm still kind of wobbling around. Brian is a pretty amazing guy." Hall also credits his daughter, Devra Hall Levy, who's also his manager, with compiling clippings and other materials contained in the detailed booklet that accompanies the CD set.

Jim Hall Quartet—Live at Birdland Hall is also quite satisfied with the Live at Birdland recording. "That was fun, too. And, again, Brian Camelio recorded that—sort of set up some equipment in the band room or something. It was great fun. Joey Baron is amazing. He's the most fun to play with and be around. He's also an amazing card shark."

Hall's initial association with ArtistShare was another live recording, Magic Meeting (2005), featuring him in a trio setting with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash. "I really wanted to record that trio at the Village Vanguard, but I couldn't find a record company that was interested in doing it until I got together with Brian Camelio and ArtistShare. Brian recorded it; he put it out beautifully and made a great record, had the engineer set up in the kitchen at the Village Vanguard, and it turned out really well. I liked that record a lot, except I think I might have used my foot pedals a little too much. Obviously, it's a famous club, and there's something about the acoustics in there that are great. And there have been so many fantastic musicians that I've heard and some that I've played with in there."

Other recent ArtistShare recordings feature Hall with a network of musicians whom he's been performing with for some time. Hall teamed up with Joey Baron for a duet CD, Conversations (ArtistShare, 2010). "That was fun," says Hall. "That's just drums or percussion and guitar-electric guitar, and I play some acoustic guitar, too. I had mixed feelings about that at first. But Joey was so inventive. I had the spine surgery I mentioned not too long before we did that record, so I had to get my fingers working again when I got out of the hospital. Joey was just so encouraging the whole time."

Another recent recording of special note is Hemispheres (ArtistShare, 2008), a two-disc set that pairs Hall with guitarist Bill Frisell in a duo setting on one CD and brings in Baron and Scott Colley on the other. Hall remembers giving Frisell guitar lessons at a young age. "I think he was about 15 or something. So I've known him quite a while, and we had done some things together. He just keeps evolving. Now I find myself being influenced by him."

Free Association (ArtistShare, 2005) is another example of Hall working in a duet context, here with pianist Geoffrey Keezer. "He's an amazing pianist," says Hall. "We also did some duet concerts together in clubs and things. Geoff can really form a composition. In his solos, I would just sort of lay out. He'd take a motif from the tune or something related and build a whole composition around it for a while—very abstract. Then he'd come back in to the regular tune, and then we'd take it out. It's great to be around people who are inventive like that."

Hall is reluctant to point to other recordings that stand out in his mind over his long career. "I rarely listen to my own records," he says. When pressed, though, he mentions his duets with pianist Bill Evans—Undercurrent (Verve, 1963) and Intermodulation (Verve, 1966)—as being especially satisfying. Hall remembers the events leading up to the first of the two. "John Lewis was heading up the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts during the last three weeks of summer. I was up there first as a guitarist with Jimmy Giuffre, and finally I was actually teaching there and got to know Bill, who was teaching there, too. And then, quite a while later, I was working with Sonny Rollins in New York City, and Bill just came in one night and asked me if I wanted to do a duet record. And I said, 'Sure.'"

Hall's collaboration with Sonny Rollins on The Bridge (RCA, 1962) is another milestone recording—not just for Hall and Rollins but in the history of jazz. Hall has continued his association and friendship with Rollins over the years and performed with the saxophonist, including a guest appearance with Rollins at a special 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York. "It was just amazing. It went on for quite a while. It was so great. And then a year or so ago, Sonny got an award at the Kennedy Center [the Kennedy Center Honors, 2011]. Christian McBride put together a bunch of musicians; we went down and played for that, too. Barack Obama was actually in the audience. We all went over to his house, the White House, for a while—the next day, I think it was. It was great seeing Sonny get that award."

Sonny Rollins—The BridgeIn addition to Rollins, there have been a number of other saxophonists who have been important figures in Hall's career. "I guess the first, probably, of course, was Lester Young," he says. "I'm looking at a drawing of him right now here at my home. I got to work with Ben Webster in California quite a bit. I spent a lot of time with Ben, and that was great. He just had a fantastic way of breathing and playing ballads and leaving space at the right time. Paul Desmond did, too."

Another noted saxophonist whom Hall has been collaborating with in recent years is Joe Lovano. The two joined together for a live recording years ago, Grand Slam (Telarc, 2000) with bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash, and all four musicians reunited for a series of shows in 2013 at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. "Joe is incredible. We're both from Cleveland. Actually, I knew Joe's dad there, and Joe's dad played the saxophone, too. He had a barber shop, and I had hair then, so I was a customer there. Joe is just amazing to play with. He just keeps pushing the envelope all the time, expanding his horizon a bit, so it's a lot of fun with Joe."

Growing up in Cleveland was important in Hall's musical development beyond his coincidental tie with Lovano. "I was at the Cleveland Institute of Music for five years, and toward the end I was majoring in composition," says Hall. "It was a fantastic school and still is. I knew some people who worked there, so they allowed me to pay my tuition something like five dollars a month. I learned so much. When I started, I almost literally knew nothing about classical music. And then I discovered Bartok. Bartok became my hero after that. I had been working with a quartet in Cleveland, and we were going to start traveling together. I told the guys I was going to have to bail out because I was going to go to the Cleveland Institute of Music. It was kind of a disappointment for them, but it was a great decision for me. I wanted to be a better musician. And I hope it worked."

Hall sees a very direct relationship between his approach to jazz and early studies at the Cleveland Institute, given that jazz improvisation can be equated to spontaneous composition. "I think that is a proper connection there. I don't think of it literally too much, but it must have affected my way of playing. Also, I never felt that I had really speedy technique like a Joe Pass or one of those guys, so I relied on being able to compose as I went along. It makes it fun, too."
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