Chico Hamilton & Jim Hall–SPIRITS REJOICE


The cycles of birth and death being what they are, going on within us and without us, as is RADIO FREE CHIP’s wont—being both a freshly minted grandfather and a devout musician—we inevitably find ourselves singing an amen chorus or two of “Spirits Rejoice.”


The Original Classic Chico Hamilton Quintet of the 1950s
Featuring Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, Fred Katz, Carson Smith

And so, as we mark the passing of two iconic Tribal Elders by calling attention to their enduring gifts of love and light (and invoking their Sound Signatures), let us now briefly celebrate the music of drummer Chico Hamilton and guitarist Jim Hall, bonded in death, much as they were in life.

Because while there were surely instrumentalists who had more garish floor routines, Hamilton and Hall’s sheer musicality was predicated on more adult ideals: they were committed to fashioning as beautiful a sound as possible, while prioritizing the importance of space–and putting a premium on listening.

As musicians, they possessed a sense of elegance and restraint; a degree of conversational empathy and a collective generosity of spirit that manifested itself as a genius for imbuing the silences with as much power, if not more, than the notes themselves.

Chico Hamilton with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet

Chico Hamilton with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker

In the process, they created a delicious sense of anticipation, predicated on the notion that if you don’t play as if you were being paid by the note, there’s a good chance that the phrases and beats you craft will be filled out and completed in the listener’s mind.

Chico’s spiritual connection with Jim goes back to the golden age of jazz in the 1950s.

Inspired by Papa Jo Jones, Hamilton established himself as a master drummer on the West Coast through his work with the original Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet and as a valued accompanist for singer Lena Horne. The drummer’s 1956 recording, Chico Hamilton Trio (Pacific Jazz), marked his maiden voyage as a leader, and in tandem with the great bassist George Duvivier and guitarists Howard Roberts and Jim Hall, El Chico produced one of the great trio recordings in the history of jazz: not much smoke, but plenty of quiet fire, articulated with a deceptively laid back brand of swinging intensity (on mallets and brushes, as well as with sticks) that is the hallmark of true class and style.

With Chico’s passage on November 25, and Hall’s death on December 10, their collective performance on Duvivier’s spooky blues, “Porch Light,” takes on a special resonance. Dig how Hamilton battens down the hatches underneath Duvivier’s probing bass line with his swirling, swinging brushes…a lost art. And God bless Jim Hall for his iconic tonal purity and groovy post-Charlie Christian phasing; did any jazz guitarist ever swing harder with fewer well-chosen notes?

Chico Hamilton on BrushesAlas, as a scribe, it often falls upon us to articulate the ineffable, and in the process, we often find ourselves reduced to leaning on easy clichés, comparisons and catch phrases.

And was there ever a more unfortunate label ascribed to anyone’s music, let alone that of Chico Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Jim Hall, than that one-size-fits-all-jive known as COOL JAZZ.

I mean, I’m as guilty of this as anyone, having myself referred to Jim Hall as “The Emperor Of Cool.”

I guess the prevailing logic at the time was that if you were from NYC, you played hard bop, but if you were working on the Left Coast (or were a Caucassian), that somehow your music, your genre was therefore C-O-O-L…as in lacking swing, blues, balls, negritude–you name it.

Chico Hamilton with Fred Astaire & The Delta Rhythm Players from YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH [1941]

Chico Hamilton with Fred Astaire & The Delta Rhythm Players

I know for a fact that Chico deeply resented this bullshit, and as a progenitor of what might more accurately be called Chamber Jazz, while he led a number of innovative ensembles, featuring tightly crafted arrangements and unusual (for that time) instrumentation (such as his groups featuring cellist Fred Katz, woodwind player Buddy Collette and guitarist Hall), somehow Chico’s music was bagged, labeled, and often undervalued as Cool Jazz–a label that never seemed to stick quite as tightly to so like-minded a conceptualist as pianist John Lewis and his own equally elegant ensemble, the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The Hollywood connection? The sweet smell of commercial success? Who knows, but while Chico Hamilton’s command of the drums was more timbrally sensual, thematically cerebral and melodically elegant than jaw-droppingly technocratic, he was the finest mallet player and brush master this side of Big Sid Catlett and Papa Jo Jones, and he took a back seat to no one as a group leader (including Jazz Messenger pro temps, Art Blakey), with an eye for talent and how to nurture it within his group aesthetic, without losing ensemble integrity or unduly inhibiting any musician’s more adventurous instincts.

Jim Hall for one gives Chico major props for encouraging his development not only as an instrumental stylist, but as a composer/arranger; and his experiences with Chico certainly supercharged his evolution as a musician, particularly in his subsequent chamber jazz adventures with Jimmy Giuffre’s innovative trios, not to mention the dynamic post-bop ensembles of Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer.

Shall we drop names? Let’s.

Referencing naught but guitarists? Chico Hamilton not only launched Jim Hall into his creative orbit, but also helped provide a dynamic context for the likes of Howard Roberts, John Pisano, Dennis Budimir, Gabor Szabo, Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie, Barry Finnerty, Joe Beck, Rodney Jones and Carry DeNigris. And yes, that’s Chico Hamilton playing drums with ex-sideman Szabo on the guitarist’s hugely influential original, “Gypsy Queen,” from his solo recording, Spellbinder. Not to mention bassist Albert Stinson.

Horn and woodwind players?

How about this excerpt from the famous film JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, showcasing Hamilton’s dramatic mallet work and moody melodic variations behind California native Eric Dolphy on flute (who to the best of my knowledge, was never summarily dismissed as a ‘West Coast’ musician). But don’t stop there: Chico also helped launch the careers of Paul Horn, Charles Lloyd, George Bohanon, Arnie Lawrence, Arthur Blythe, Steve Turre and Eric Person.

I can remember my college days during the early ’70s, when it seemed as though all through the record collections of my jazzbo friends, mixed in with their Miles and Coltrane, were all of Chico’s hugely influential recordings for the Impulse label, including Passin’ Thru, Man From Two Worlds, Chic Chic Chico, and The Dealer–and that somewhere on those LP sleeves, there’d be a photo of the drummer decked out in the fly-est threads this side of Miles Davis.  What a dude!

Chico Hamilton--Drum Shot from UnderneathNor did Chico let the grass grow under this feet over the next 50-some years, continuing to nurture young talent in a series of ever-evolving groups, such as Euphoria. while influencing several generations of musicians as an educator at the New School in lower Manhattan and as an NEA Jazz Master. Chico remained a presence, and a leader, and an inspiration to several generations of musicians and listeners (most notable among them, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts), while keeping a prolific stream of recordings in the pipeline well into his 90s, even at the point when he could no longer mount the drum kit himself.

But clearly, as of 2007, he was still capable of making the drums dance and sing, as this elegant mallets showcase demonstrates.

In any event, as we take our leave of Foreststorn Hamilton, now that Chico is forever young, I have no doubt that many listeners–your narrator included–will find themselves re-investigating his extensive catalog, and digging back into his fascinating history as a instrumentalist and leader. If you count yourself among such sonic Pilgrims, there’s no better place to reacquaint oneself with the late drummer than in a fascinating series of interviews The Wall Street Journal’s own Marc Myers conducted with Chico a few years back on his own JAZZ WAX, the gold standard for jazz blogs on the internet. Enjoy.

Jim Hall? Outside of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, there’s likely never been a more influential jazz guitarist, if we may paint him with so broad a brush. Because while Jim Hall wore his jazz pedigree proudly, I’m not convinced that he necessarily viewed himself so much as a guitarist, but as a musician–for whom the guitar remained a challenge and a mystery, and who grew old gracefully while remaining engaged by all of the young guitarists who grew up viewing him as a creative father, and who are now tribal elders in their own right.

And all individuals to a man: Mick Goodrick, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein among others.

In fact, Hall performed in Jazz At Lincoln Center‘s Allen Room with his trio just a few weeks back, a concert in which he was joined onstage by the aforementioned John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. In fact, active and creative to the end, he was due to undertake a series of duo gigs in Japan in January of 2014 with long-time collaborator, master bassist Ron Carter.

The last time I got to hear Jim Hall live, was as a special guest at Sonny Rollins’ 80th Birthday celebration at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater back in September of 2010, and it was frankly a bit unsettling, as he did not appear to be in the best of health, and was scuffling a bit before he finally found his sea legs, as Sonny cheered him on–one brother to another.

Still, here in some concert footage from the 2012 North Sea Jazz Festival, with long-time collaborator Scott Colley on bass, he reminds me for all the world of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, teetering between one silence and another, probing for invisible chords only he can hear, yet fully engaged, as he seemingly melts into the woody tone of his Jim Hall Signature Edition Arch Top.

Picasso, the-old-guitaristOn the second selection, as the bass player’s solo grows more intense, his rhythm playing becomes quieter and quieter, as if he were trying to subdue his amplifier, and invite the listener into the acoustic isolation with which he is absorbed.

And you know what? The more he comes down, the harder this listener finds himself listening. On the third and final tune, a blues, I thought back to some old B&W footage of Lester Young in a televised performance of “Fine And Mellow” with Billie Holiday, from back in 1957.

Though his strength was on the wane, and he didn’t seem to have his full wind, Lester imbued every note with a plaintive life force as if emerging from a deep sleep to recount some dimly remembered dream.

Every time I see it, now, I’m reminded that in the end, as the bar keep cries out last call, it ain’t about your quote/unquote technique; it ain’t about the notes–the human being is the instrument.

What once seemed sad, even tragic, now seems poignant; a special kind of beauty, born of an inner resolve–the will to create and to communicate. The elemental I AM.

I get some sense of that in Jim’s performance at North Sea, as he gets back up on horseback and takes the reins yet again, as if there were time for many more rides, out in the fresh air and sunshine.

Jim Hall Older2I have a lot more I could say about Jim Hall and what he means to me.  Some of it you can glean in another posting on RADIO FREE CHIP, wherein I reprise a lovely sit-down I had with Jim some years back, which originally appeared in another form as the cover story for the July 1999 edition of Jazz Times.

However, better to leave you with a pithy footnote from an exchange of texts I traded with Bill Frisell yesterday morning, as we expressed our mixed emotions regarding Jim (and Chico’s) passing.

“Having trouble finding words today. I am blessed to have known him. Feeling sad. But…wow. What a life. So much music. I’m so thankful.”

Spirits rejoice.

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