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Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Jim Hall

By Victor Magnani

Life Lessons from the Greatest Living Jazz Guitarist

I have long held the position that most anything worthwhile doing is in some way connected with
teaching or learning. Certainly one of the noblest purposes which art can serve is to teach us how
better to live. Not how to live better, mind you. Art isn't going to tell us how to make enough
money to retire early, how to firm up our abs, or how to get a supermodel to date you. But it can
guide us as to how to feel more deeply, think better thoughts, act more responsibly, be a better
citizen of the world. It can serve to point us towards enlightenment, spiritual or social. It doesn't
promise us anything, which is part of arts appeal. It makes no demands. It's our call as to how
much we want to put in and how much we want to get out. It doesn't set up boundaries, it offers
up signposts from which we can draw our own conclusions. Artists oftentimes offer up their
work without a specific agenda. Yet, if we are receptive, there is no end to the lessons that a
great work of art can offer us.

Of all the great jazz artists, no one has had a more profound impact on
me than guitarist Jim Hall. As a guitarist myself there are times when I
look to his music to teach me purely technical things - how does he play
through certain chord changes, how does he voice his chords, how does
he produce that miraculous sound of his? But if this were all his art had
to offer, it would be fairly shallow. His work speaks as much to the
human condition as any artist past or present, and if one looks and listens
attentively, there are great rewards to be found there. Hopefully, this little
article may serve new listeners as an introductory guide. I will address
specific "lessons" which I have been able to draw from his works, specific character traits,
personal attributes or admirable qualities which I have observed musically, referencing specific
recordings to illustrate my position. You can feel free to disagree with everything I say, but if
you give this approach to listening a chance you may hear things you never suspected the music
was telling you.

TRUST - All jazz improvisation is based, in differing degrees, on trust. You trust the drummer
will keep time. You trust the bass player will spell out the correct chord changes. You trust that
your accompanists will listen to you and try to be responsive. You trust that everyone will get to
the gig on time (O.K., that may be trusting too much). Yet, in much of Jim's music, this element
of trust is heightened to levels only the very bravest and most confident of improvisers ever
venture. Nowhere is this more evident than in his many duo recordings. His duo recordings with
piano players and bassists all display this characteristic in large measure, yet there is some small
security blanket in the way the instruments take turns in accompanying one another. Both guitar
and bass/piano occupy vaguely traditional roles as the other player solos. It is his duo recording
with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer Live At the North Sea Jazz Festival where this trust is
most evident. Only rarely will Brookmeyer play behind Jim as he solos. That means that he has
to function as a one man rhythm section while Brookmeyer plays, and then become solo guitarist
when it's his turn to blow. Brookmeyer must trust Hall implicitly, and Hall in turn must trust both
Brookmeyer and himself! And they both trust their listeners.

In particular, their performance of "My Funny Valentine" is a model of the level of trust they
share. Jim begins the tune alone, using the bridge as an intro. But right from the get-go he
stretches things further than most would venture - going back and forth between two keys. This
has a disrupting, unsettling effect. He finally settles on one key and on a tempo, and Brookmeyer
enters, soloing over Hall's insistent comping. There is no initial statement of the melody, they
trust their listeners to be hip enough to recognize the tune from only the slightest melodic
fragments. Once Brookmeyers improvisation is complete, Jim begins his own solo with a
continuation of the strumming he had been using in his accompaniment. His solo then dissolves
into single notes, his playing reminiscent of his intro. He again goes back and forth between two
keys, pulling the rug out from under us, and dropping the strict tempo, opting instead for an
expressive rubato. In lesser hands, the tune would be in danger of falling apart by now, becoming
incoherent. But the trust these two great risk takers exhibit helps to open up glorious new
possibilities in what is too often a tired old warhorse. Hall eventually builds the texture up and in
turn builds the tension creating a perfect scenario for Brookmeyer to make his dramatic re-
entrance. Brookmeyers playing continues with ideas he had explored earlier, giving his
improvisation a composed quality, and also giving the sense that we, the listeners, have arrived
back at a familiar place after a long and interesting trip, providing we trusted our guides.

RESPECT - In order for a jazz group to function successfully it needs elements of both a perfect
democracy and a benevolent dictatorship. Since jazz improvisation entails at least some amount
of self-expression, each member of the group must feel free to make his or her contributions.
Yet, there also needs to be a dominant voice, someone with a vision of the sound of the band, or
the arrangement of the tune, the direction of the performance. Sometimes this happens quite
naturally. Ideally, the leader should be someone who commands a certain amount of respect so
that the sidemen will cooperate and in turn be given license to make their presence felt. Sonny
Rollins' recording The Bridge with Jim Hall on guitar is a perfect example of this type of respect
in action. In the liner notes to the RCA/Bluebird CD reissue which included The Bridge
recordings (Sonny Rollins - The Quartets featuring Jim Hall) Jim himself talks about this when
he says "the kind of awesome respect that he... not exactly commanded, but he just got from
people, by the way, just by his presence and by his playing". The track "John S." will serve as a
good example, though almost any track on this recording will do. As Sonny begins his solo,
basing it on a single repeated note (with a slight flourish into it), Jim manages to punctuate it
with his comping, never intruding or stepping on Rollins' idea, but actually helps it to build into
the forceful statement which it becomes. Hall clearly understands that Sonny is working to build
tension through this repeated note, and he stays out until the bridge when he begins to outline the
harmony and provide rhythmic counterpoint. Jim's comping is clearly in the service of Sonny's
solo; he doesn't try to force Sonny anywhere. In other situations Hall's accompanying will be
more interactive, feature more give and take. He's been quoted in Guitar Player from May of
1983 as saying "Sonny Rollins would get irritated if you tried to lead him". Hall doesn't so much
subjugate his style of work in the service of Sonny Rollins' vision, displaying the type of respect
we all wish we were accorded.
INDEPENDENCE - Independence is a natural attribute to expect in a jazz musician. The idea is
that they are telling their story, they are playing the music their way, with their sound, which is
unique and relevant and interesting. This is evident most profoundly when Jim Hall plays solo.
Many wonderful guitarists, when they play solo, make the guitar become a band unto itself,
playing or at least implying chords, bass and melody simultaneously. The guitarists most revered
for accomplishing this dexterous feat are the ones who generally provide the fullest texture.
When Jim Hall plays a tune solo he plays almost exactly the same as when he plays with a group.
He has the supreme confidence to let a single note ring unaccompanied. Or what is even more
rare amongst guitarists, to allow moments of silence to pass by, welcoming the silence as part of
the discourse. On "Poor Butterfly", from the recording Jim Hall's Three, he begins the
performance by simply "singing" the tune on the guitar, with only occasional ringing double
stops, no accompaniment to speak of. As the performance progresses, his texture becomes more
fleshed out. Yet he never seems to be out to give the impression of multiple performers. That
doesn't seem to be his goal. He simply chooses to present this tune alone, and what we hear is
him alone. The courage and confidence it takes to play like this is hard to imagine unless you've
tried something similar. His approach is more akin to a Sonny Rollins solo saxophone
performance that trying to emulate a pianist, who by the very nature of their instrument would be
able to play melody and accompaniment at the same time. Hall's solo performances don't
generally have that distinction; it's all a unified whole, inseparable and complete.

HIT THE GROUNG RUNNING (or DON'T WASTE WORDS/NOTES/TIME) - In my opinion
Jim Hall is responsible for one of the all time great openings of any jazz record, his performance
on "I've Got You Under My Skin" on the recording Intermodulation with Bill Evans. The
performers eschew the melody at the start of the tune, instead launching directly into a fiery
guitar solo. Swinging, driving, melodic, memorable, Hall constructs a perfect chorus. There's no
foreplay here, and in this case it's a good thing. There are no wasted gestures - everything
matters. Perhaps I should say that there is no posturing rather than no foreplay, there is nothing
extraneous. We have a succinct performance - one solo chorus for Hall, one for Evans and a
climactic statement of the melody to conclude. By beginning the tune with the guitar solo they
launch the listener right into the excitement, providing a rush that proves to be the beginning of a
thrilling ride. All of this from two players who are generally considered cerebral, sensitive and
subtle. Clearly they can (could in Evans' case) throw down when the situation calls for it.

DEVELOP - Development - personal, professional, emotional, spiritual - is a by-product of a
path well chosen, and a course of action diligently pursued. Jazz solos, jazz performances, should
develop in some manner. There are no hard and fast rules for how a tune or a solo should begin
or end, but it should "go" somehow, it should proceed in some way which will satisfy the listener
in the end. Jim Hall is a master of development, in the small scale of the way he builds a chorus,
the middle ground of structuring and arranging a tune and a whole performance, and the higher
level of interpretation of a tune. I've seen him several nights in a row in a club, and watched how
he would perform the same tunes, build on the same ideas from the previous night, and move his
interpretation of the tune along further every time. He was always exploring, but not starting
from square one every time. It was a cumulative process. The tunes would grow every night, and
over time a particular approach to a tune would crystallize. And then, after he had taken one
approach to a tune as far as it could go, he would find some new way to explore it. Witness the
variety of interpretations of a standard like "All the Things You Are" that he has recorded over
the years. For an example of his developmental abilities on the micro level of developing his
ideas throughout a solo, listen in particular to his performance with Ron Carter of "All the
Things" from the CD Telepathy (originally on Live at Village West). As he finishes the initial
statement of the melody he plays a little chord phrase consisting of a pickup into the backbeat,
"and-two, and-four, and-two, and-four". He then proceeds to sequence this phrase through most
of the first "A" section of his first chorus, closing the first 8 bars with a little phrase in sixths. He
then picks up the "and-two, and-four" phrase for the next 8 bars, again concluding with a little
closing theme in sixths. At the bridge he starts to suggest Duke Ellington tunes, "Band Call" I
think. This must have opened up whole Ellingtonian stream-of-consciousness, because he then
plays the melody to "Mood Indigo" over the last "A" section, making it fit the changes to "All
the Things". He takes a similar course with his second chorus, again referencing "Band Call" and
"Mood Indigo". The whole solo is such a thing of logic and beauty that I can't help but think that
his approach to the tune - the use of the rhythmic push as a motive, the Duke Ellington quotes -
developed over time. It is of course entirely possible that this was pure spontaneity, that this was
all off the cuff, off the top of his head. If so, he's even better than I think, and I think he's the best
we have! But I feel that it is his ability to develop an idea, to flesh it out, to follow where it leads
and not force it to be something that it's not, which is most evidently on display here, and which
provides such a wonderful model.

TAKE RISKS - For many fans of jazz guitar, the Holy Grail of guitar LP's is Jim Hall Live on
the Horizon/A&M record label, long out of print and never issued on CD. In most informal
polling that I've seen, its' primary competition is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes
Montgomery, or Wes' Smokin' at the Half Note. Nowhere else is Jim's playing so free and
adventurous. In his own liner notes to the record he lists "Playing for the moment, joy, sense of
humor, chance taking, stretching to reach your potential and sometimes missing, playing 'to' a
receptive audience, trust in other musicians" (see first point, above) as motivations for a live
recording. He goes so far as to apologize (tongue on cheek) for the players mistakenly dropping
2 beats in one song, pointing out that it's O.K. because they added 2 beats to another! Every
performance on this recording is a gem, but perhaps the highlight for me is "I Hear A
Rhapsody". The incredible interplay exhibited between the players (Don Thompson on bass and
Terry Clarke on drums) is telepathic. Jim's duet with Terry Clarke is stunning. Their willingness
to put themselves on the line musically, to let their enthusiasm spill over, is what gives this
record it's communicative power and endears it to so many listeners. The higher the risk, the
higher the reward.

FREDDIE GREEN IS ALL YOU NEED - I know the Beatles told us that love was all we
needed, but if you're at all interested in playing or understanding jazz guitar, then folks Freddie
Green, the great rhythm guitarist from the Count Basie band, is all you need. Or at least, what
you need most. Jim Hall has on more than one occasion commented that if one were to prune the
tree of jazz guitar, at the center you would be left with Freddie Green. His ability to drive a band,
to swing and carry others along with him, all with the simplest of rhythmic means - steady
strummed quarter notes - is so central to the feeling of jazz, that it's essential. Rhythm guitar in
that style is becoming a lost art - there aren't many big band chairs to be filled, so very few
players have the opportunity to work the style to the degree of expertise previous generations
had. While Jim rarely plays strict Freddie Green style quarter notes, he does play more strummed
rhythm guitar, even in more contemporary settings, than most other jazz guitarists do. His
rhythm playing is such an integral part of his whole sound that one shouldn't overlook its' roots.
For an example of his rhythm playing in an almost Freddie Green-like context, listen to the
Jimmy Giuffre 3's performance of "Topsy" on the Western Suite recording. This incarnation of
the JG3 was Giuffre on saxes and clarinet, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, and Hall on
guitar. Many of the characteristics mentioned above are present here - trust, independence, risk
taking - but what I love about this is how Jim makes this small ensemble swing with his driving,
insistent strumming. This may not seem to be the type of personal character trait that I've been
exploring, but to play this style as convincingly as he does here requires a sort of meditative
concentration, a getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to become a conduit of
swing. Certainly that's a state of mind that can be expounded to other areas. There's a lesson
there, give it a listen.

KEEP MOVING, KEEP GROWING - Jim Hall was born on December 4, 1930. That puts him
well into retirement age. Over the last six or seven years he has undertaken a series of recordings
which encompass everything from intimate guitar/bass duos (his latest recording) to large
orchestral projects using a variety of ensembles (By Arrangement and Textures). He has also
recorded with numerous prestigious guest artists who he has written specifically for ("Calypso
Joe" for Joe Lovano, "Stern Stuff" for Mike Stern, "Frisell Frazzle" for Bill Frisell, "Little Blues"
for Art Farmer). Every new record has forward looking compositions, such as his "Quartet + 4"
for string quartet and jazz quartet premiered when he was awarded the Jazzpar Award in 1998.
He has also formed a new group with Joe Lovano, Lewis Nash, and George Mraz - Grand Slam -
with whom he has recorded one CD. His playing, always marked by curiosity and
adventurousness, continues on these paths, and reflects an openness and drive to move forward
which I admire. (That's an understatement - I'm in awe of it). A solo CD which made extensive
use of overdubbing and effects. A duo CD with Pat Metheny. Guest appearance on a Greg Osby
recording. The body of work he has produced just since 1995 alone would be an impressive
lifetime accomplishment. A wonderful introduction to this more recent work is his arrangement
of John Lewis' "Django" from By Arrangement. The featured guest on this particular cut is Pat
Metheny, but the star of the piece is Jim Hall's impressive string writing. Using an orchestra of
violas and cellos only (along with the two guitarists and Scott Colley on bass and Terry Clarke
on drums), he conjures up a wide variety of textures through creative pizzicato, in a sense
treating the string orchestra like a huge guitar. In an era when it quite often feels that everything
has been done, here's Jim still able to produce music which is completely unlike anything you've
ever heard before.

KEEP GOOD COMPANY / PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS - For a jazz musician, doing the
second will usually lead to the first. Jim Hall's achievements can be measured by examining the
company he has kept throughout his career. Obviously, these people, who are the cream of the
crop, valued his contributions enough to seek out opportunities to perform and/or record with
him. Here's a partial list of names with whom he's been associated - Jimmy Giuffre, Bob
Brookmeyer, Red Mitchell, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Gerry
Mulligan, John Lewis, Ornette Coleman, Ron Carter, George Shearing, Zoot Sims, Jimmy
Raney, Barney Kessell, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Greg
Osby, Tom Harrell, Chris Potter. This list spans generations as well as styles, yet Jim has always
remained true to his musical vision, and pursued excellence with dedication and integrity. A
wonderful lesson for all of us on how to conduct a life.