Jim Hall: Live, Now and Then

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."

Beyond improvisation, composing and arranging have long been an important side of Hall's work. It's true that Jim Hall Live! and Live, Vol. 2-4 focus largely on standards, but since the mid-'70s, Hall has increasingly featured his own original compositions on his recordings. And while he's had enormous artistic success working in duo and trio contexts, he has ventured into projects with mid-sized and larger ensembles, using varied instrumentation that displays his great capacities as an arranger. Two recordings from the late 1990s exemplify this in particular: Textures (Telarc, 1997) and By Arrangement (Telarc, 1998), which incorporate string and brass sections and feature guest appearances by the New York Voices, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Greg Osby and others.

Hall has displayed his artistry in a variety of contexts with a variety of collaborators in live performance also, and he continues to do so. He performs in trios with Joey Baron and Scott Colley or Steve LaSpina and Johnathan Blake; in duos with a bassist or with Geoffrey Keezer on piano; or in quartets that add in Greg Osby or guitarist Julian Lage, in addition to the Grand Slam group. Upcoming engagements for Hall include the Newport Jazz Festival on August 4th, with Colley, Lage and Lewis Nash, and shows that Hall is headlining at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 22 and 23, with Colley, Baron and special guests John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein.

Still, composing is a major day-to-day focus for Hall. "I'm hoping to keep writing a bit every day and see what happens. I try to sort of push forward all the time. I have music paper and pencils on my desk here to keep moving, and that's really my basis of performing and being alive."

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