Jim Hall–When In Doubt, Just Shut Up And Listen

I feel that jazz is not so much a style as a process of making music.

Bill Evans

Jim is from a generation where people are very, very…I don’t want to say close-minded—but very much set in their ways and established, and have firmly established the way they are going to sound for the rest of their career. Jim seems to be a work in progress. I want to be like him when I grow up. I still want to be moving and searching and growing and absorbing and trying to rework things and unlearn what I’ve learned and then learn it again.

Greg Osby

The guitar is still a mystery to me.

Jim Hall

So, this is how the world ends—not with a whim but a banker.

Paul Desmond

There’s nothing quite like taking a high-performance car out on the Autobahn and shifting into overdrive; opening up the engine; feeling that surge of power as light and sound dissolve into a blur of locomotion. However, were you to downshift into a lower gear, your perspective would be radically altered; you’d not only have the forest but the trees, as the haze of primary colors snapped into sharp focus, and suddenly you’d be able to perceive subtle nuances of brown and green and turquoise with the eyes of a child…or a painter.

Monet--White Water Lilies 1899

Jim Hall smiles thoughtfully at that notion as Django, his little dust mop of a dog, cuddles on his lap. “That’s funny you’d say that. Last year my wife Jane and I went to an overpriced spa in Massachusetts, and every morning they’d organize these groups to take brisk walks, and I was in the baby group because I was always gawking at stuff, looking at things, and I’d end up at the end of the line. And in front of me were all of these elderly ladies, because I can’t really just walk through the woods without lingering on things.

“So I guess you’re right—I’m kind of put together that way.”

Jim Hall olderJim Hall’s quiet, supple artistry transcends the instrument itself—he is the emperor of cool. In the tradition of bluesy minimalists such as Count Basie, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Gil Evans, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, Paul Desmond, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans,

Jim Hall is not so much concerned with the means, as the ends.

He is a genius at playing next to nothing and imbuing each note with a deep spiritual hue.

Jim Hall is a master listener, a virtuoso of silence and inflection…the pregnant rhythmic pause.

Nor does Jim succumb to the allure of facile pattern playing; he constructs phrases; he makes music: lyrical, understated, melodic improvisations, marked by coy syncopated disjunctions, elegant conversational counterpoint and luminous harmonic architecture.

To this listener, Jim is the Monet of Jazz Guitar–with a painter’s eye for shape and shadow, color and texture, balance and form.

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny - TBB JAZZ FESTIVAL - PARIS juin 1991

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny
Paris, 1991

“To me, Jim illuminated the potential of the guitar by facing and addressing its limitations head on,” seconds Pat Metheny, himself one of jazz guitar’s most intrepid explorers, and Hall’s collaborator on one of the elder artist’s most intimate, probing recitals, the newly released Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (Telarc).

“Jim found a way of increasing the dynamic range of the instrument by his special touch and picking technique and there are dozens of guitarists who have been influenced specifically by Jim’s approach—I’ve always felt that John Scofield, Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, Mick Goodrick, and myself all have a particular relationship to what Jim hit upon in terms of phrasing and dynamics.

“Yet at the same time, as much as I think we would all point to Jim as an influence, I don’t think any of us sound particularly like each other…or Jim at this point, for that matter.”

“To me, this is the best kind of influence a musician can impart to other musicians: Inspiring you to find your own thing through your own research.”

Pablo Picasso--The Blind Man's Meal“And now I’m listening to all the younger guys in terms of what they’re doing with sound and phrasing,” Hall acknowledges, by way of returning the compliment.

“I would hate it if I still was trying to play what I did in the ’60s,” he says, shuddering at the possibility. “I think I would be out of music. I listen to all those young guys in order to keep growing, because that’s the way my brain works, too. I see it as a family, and we listen to one another, and kind of keep the language going.

“That’s why it infuriates me when people talk about Miles’ ‘electric band’ and put it down. I say it’s none of our business. For me, he’s like Picasso. You wouldn’t tell Picasso to keep doing the blue period, would you? ‘Oh, I preferred your representational work. Knock it off with those warped-looking people.’

“Again, I see music as a family, anyway, which is marvelous—it crosses across ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, age boundaries, and all of the boundaries that people erect.

“Music doesn’t know about that.”

“I first met Pat when he was fifteen years old,” Jim recalls. “He had braces on his teeth and was kind of a juvenile delinquent. He had sort of semi-run away from home for a little while.

Jim Hall _Ron+Carter

Jim Hall with Ron Carter

“I was working at a place called The Guitar with Ron Carter, and Pat came in with Atilla Zoller. Pat had won a scholarship to some DownBeat camp, and Atilla had been his teacher. So Atilla was taking him around New York. He had been up to hear Freddie Hubbard at Club Baron’s; and he’d heard the Bill Evans Trio.

“So I knew him then, and I stayed aware of what he was doing when he went with Gary Burton. We did a concert at City College in 1982; he played just with Steve Rodby and I played with Ben Riley and Harvie Swartz. We played one or two duets, and then he played some with my trio, and it just seemed like we could play together.

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny2“The thing I love about Metheny on our duo record is that he gets so many different sounds. The thing he does on ‘Summertime,’ I was just awe-struck. That was just one guitar, no overdubs, like a Richie Havens strum. I’d be watching him, going, ‘Wow, look at that, what’s he going to do now?’ And I’m going, ‘Dah-duh Daah,’ and he’s going ‘Brrrrrooooommmmm!’ Then he played this thing he calls the Pikkaso guitar, with 40-some strings; he also played a nylon-string guitar, with a pick and with his fingers, and a fretless classical guitar as well as an electric guitar.

“And then we’d do five or six improvised things, which were literally spontaneous—we’d just look at each other. Those were done in the studio, sort of like refreshers. We would have worked on one tune for maybe an hour or so, and then we’d say ‘Let’s just play something free,’ you know, to kind of blow all the cobwebs out. I’d just sort of look at him and we’d start, and it felt like he was inside my brain. It was pretty unreal how he could react and almost think about what you were going to do next.”

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny is the culmination of Hall’s superb cycle of recordings for the Telarc label. Still radiant in the autumn of his artistic bloom, Hall’s work on Dedications and Inspirations, Dialogues, Textures, Panorama: Live at the Village Vanguard, and By Arrangement illuminates his youthful, exploratory attitude about music, showcasing him both as a master improviser and as a distinctive composer/arranger, whose music, though deeply informed by jazz, classical, and folk sources, is truly beyond category (a point driven home by Bruce Ricker’s superb documentary portrait, Jim Hall: A Life in Progress). In a sense, these six varied Telarc recitals find him having come full circle, revisiting the inspirations of his youth, re-exploring his experiences in the conservatory, and re-affirming the directions he began to pursue as an up-and-coming musician in the 1950s—a musical aesthetic defined as much by his willingness to take a long breath as to glory in the sound of his own singular voice.

Jim Hall became the antidote to rote guitar-speak, transcending the instrument’s technical entanglements to manifest a vision of the guitar as an authentic modern jazz instrument. In the process, Jim Hall became an inspiration to the technically challenged amongst us, who while we might’ve aspired to develop an improviser’s vocabulary on the instrument, came away from our encounters with the likes of Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix both inspired and humbled. If not for Jim Hall, it seemed as though the only honorable alternative was to toss our instrument under the first southbound truck.

“It’s an accumulation of things,” Jim points out by way of explicating his evolution. “I heard Charlie Christian’s solo on ‘Grand Slam.’ Two choruses of the blues in F, and it was like a spiritual awakening. Which I’ve never had otherwise—that really changed my life. I didn’t even know for sure what it was he was doing, but it sounded so amazing I wanted to be able to do that. And the great thing about it, is that when I hear that now, I have the same reaction, which is, ‘Gee that sounds great—I wish I could do that.’

“Anyway, I started on the guitar when I was nine or ten. Then I played the bass from the time I was in junior high. And I learned how to play it well enough that I could bow it to a degree. And then later on I did club date things where I played bass and sang a couple of tunes.

“So it was mostly bass and guitar until I got into music school, where I played a lot of piano—there was no guitar. I played piano to get in, and then I played string bass in the orchestra—which have come in real handy. I started a master’s in composition, studied a ton of counterpoint and form and analysis, took a semester of timpani and a semester of oboe, which was murder, let me tell you—I used to black out every time I tried to play it.

Jim Hall as a Young Man“So that’s one factor in explaining my approach to music. And another part of it is my personality, naturally. Some people can play fast. It’s almost like being an athlete. Some people are put together differently.

“Again, I’m having to infer this hundreds of years later, but I was around Tal Farlow a lot when I moved to California. I had heard him with the Red Norvo Trio, which was an amazing group. And then Jimmy Raney was a good friend of mine. And Wes Montgomery…I already knew Wes’ brothers before I heard him. And I’d heard George Van Eps since I was a kid, as well. So my point is, that it’s almost like I said to myself, ‘Okay, if I practice every minute for the rest of my life, I’ll never be able to do that. So what am I doing?’ It was like I said to myself, ‘Hey dummy, do something different.’ It seemed to make sense to do something personal that had to do with me, and had more to do with me than playing the guitar. Also, something that would fit in the context of what I was doing to make a living. So part of it was survival, too.

“So it had something to do with that, and it also had something to do with having gone through a music school [The Cleveland Institute of Music] where I heard everything from Gregorian chant to electronic music—so I was able to see music not just as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Charlie Christian or Bartok, but as an art form. And I didn’t feel as frantic about getting great guitar chops, although working with Sonny Rollins certainly got my attention,” he chuckles. “He sure got me practicing, because that gig was so challenging.”

Jim Hall was a cat who learned to live by his wits, made the most out of what he had, and developed an irrefutably hip, gracefully swinging survival strategy on the bandstand.

And the more Jim turned down his amp, the more intense he became. “I actually use the amplifier, especially now, I think, to play softer. Because I know that were I to play an unamplified guitar loud enough to project even to the second table at the Village Vanguard, I’d have to really bang the notes hard.”

So sure, other players may have had more elaborate floor routines, but no one was more musical than Jim Hall. Sure, Johnny Smith was more commanding; Django Reinhardt and Barney Kessell had more fire; Herb Ellis and Kenny Burrell were bluesier; Wes Montgomery swung harder (than everybody) and had a more driving, angular style of phrasing; Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney played longer, more complex melodic elisions. But Jim Hall took a little from all of them, as well as Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bill Evans, and J.S. Bach, and distilled it down into a rhythmically sophisticated lyric style; something deeply felt and deceptively simple–to the point where he could blend in…or simply disappear.

Jim Hall_Bill Evans_Philly Joe Jones

Jim Hall with Bill Evans and Philly Joe Jones

For instance, piano players and guitarists aren’t exactly kissing cousins harmonically, because the manner in which the chords lay on their instruments is so different.

Yet Hall blends seamlessly with Bill Evans on “My Funny Valentine” (from Undercurrent on United Artist) and George Shearing on “Street of Dreams” (from First Edition on Concord). And while guitarists spend a lot of time practicing scales, how often can they match the flowing, intervallic grace and vocalized phrasing of the most commanding horn players? Well, on Sonny Rollins’ “Without a Song” and “John S.” (from The Bridge on RCA) and Art Farmer’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (from Live at the Half Note on Atlantic) Jim Hall straps on his flotation device and crafts sly contrapuntal rejoinders, employing hip chordal voicings to engage Sonny and Art conversationally.

(Or as Art Farmer put it, “When you have Jim Hall, you don’t need a pianist.”)

Jim Hall with Art Farmer Quartet

Pete La Roca, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Steve Swallow

More significantly, on Jim’s first working gigs, the bands functioned more like chamber ensembles than your garden variety jazz combos—so Hall was encouraged to evolve in an unconventional manner. Quite a challenge and a blessing: to be able to enjoy such a heady brand of creative freedom on your first important jobs.

“You’re telling me!” Jim laughs. “In the dictionary, where it says lucky? They have my picture there. I was really fortunate. Starting with the Chico Hamilton Group, and then two different Jimmy Giuffre trios—the one with Bob Brookmeyer and one with Ralph Pena—and the stuff with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer.

“I was often in situations where I didn’t function in the normal guitar way. I had to either play written lines with Giuffre, or I’d get to write a lot, as I did for Chico Hamilton.

“So it had more to do with Music, with a capital M, than with guitar stuff. In fact, Jimmy would get after me about things in the phrasing. If I had a written part to play with him, and he heard lots of guitar strokes—picked strokes—I think for Jimmy that sounded like tonguing on the trumpet, so he’d say ‘Would you figure out a different way to play that?’ So I got involved in using the right hand more just to set the string in motion, and do more things with the left hand, whatever you call that…legato.

Lester Young1

The Prez
Lester Young

“I approached the guitar, not so much as a guitar player, but somewhere between a piano and a tenor saxophone—anyway that’s what I hear on the guitar.

“I was more influenced by tenor saxophonists like Lucky Thompson, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Lester Young than guitarists. I loved Lester Young’s sound. He had his own way of treating harmony and melody and rhythm. He played melodies all the time, and found the most beautiful notes within a chord that outlined it.

“And nobody could play a ballad like Ben Webster, and of course I loved Paul Desmond. I was into Ornette right from the beginning and a few years later, when I heard Coltrane a lot, I got interested in those arpeggiated things that he did. And Miles Davis could play silence better than most guys today can play notes—anybody.

“With Bob Brookmeyer and Jimmy Giuffre, here we were, three conservatory guys, exploring all sorts of traditional blues like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“And some of it came by osmosis through Bill Evans, too. Because I was around him a lot, and I heard him develop.

“The first time I met him he was in a quartet with Tony Scott…this is way before Miles, like in 1955-1956. This was with Paul Motian in Chicago when I was there with Chico Hamilton, and they were playing some other place where I stopped in to hear them. And my memory is that then Bill was playing somewhere between Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano…that is, like Bud Powell, but across the bar lines. But it still was very personal. And then I heard him when he joined Miles Davis, and I worked opposite him with Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer. And that would’ve been like 1958 or so.

“So I heard Bill a lot, and because of the types of groups I was in, I paid particular attention to the piano players in other groups to see what they did for accompanying. And for me, Bill just brought such a wide range of textures and dynamics and different uses of the pedal.

“And he wasn’t afraid to be pianistic and to listen real carefully. With a lot of those kind of bebop players it had gotten to be like boxing or some kind of macho thing, and Bill really wasn’t into that.

Jim Hall1“So I think I was influenced quite a bit by the way Bill voiced chords and the way he accompanied.

“Like a lot of times I’ll play chords where I’ll leave the root out, because I assume the bass player has that covered anyway. And maybe just some fourths piled up, that you can move easily if you have to. And there’s all sort of triadic stuff, where anything you hear in the way of a melodic line, you can harmonize a number of different ways.

“I took a lot of that stuff from the first George Van Eps method book, and I would use my own chord voicings [plays a variety of different voicings over the basic diatonic movement, sometimes forcing the harmony at gunpoint, like Monk—you will resolve]. Stravinsky did that kind of thing a lot, too. Like a C chord would be [plays odd inversions]…but it’s still a C chord.

Jim Hall & Bill Frisell1

Jim Hall and Bill Frisell

“Bill [Frisell]? I’d describe him the same way I describe Pat—you really felt like he was inside your brain.

“Like I knew that Bill got a kick out of the way I played rhythm. I think of rhythm playing the way a drummer plays the hi-hat cymbal. So my hand is going all the time, and sometimes I’m not actually playing a chord. You just might hear it hitting the strings, and then I’ll play a chord where I think it’s appropriate.

“On ‘My Funny Valentine’ Bill really bails me out on my own solo. He hears that I’m in trouble and he leads me into the next phrase. And when I played rhythm he just instantly stopped using his left hand, because he knew that was covered. He was amazing in that way.

Jim Hall as an Old Man

“You’ve still got to make music, though. All of the technical things? Those are just tools, and there still has to be something personal at play.

“I’d rather hear B.B. King play three notes than hear a lot of guitar players play all night with their zillions of chops, because there’s something about B.B.’s intelligence.

“I always figured I’ve made a living recovering from mistakes. You take something where you maybe didn’t literally mean to play it, and you try and make it fit somehow—and it’s fun.

“So that’s more what I’m interested in—making what everyone does right for the moment and for the music.

“The same way that Bartok did on the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. I think it’s the very opening of that [picks up his guitar and plays the part]. It starts as a fugue, with four or five parts, and then it goes to a retrograde, and pretty soon the retrograde and the original wind up in a unison and it ends like that—it’s just perfect architecture. Boy, I can just get torn up looking at the score and listening to that because I don’t know what that means philosophically, but it’s just gorgeous architecture.

Jim Hall as a Young Man2“All the other stuff is just there to be used in the service of whatever good music, good painting or good writing means.

“And when in doubt, when all else fails, don’t just do something—sit there,” he laughs.

“When in doubt, lay out—don’t say anything.

“I like that.

“If you’re in doubt, just shut up and listen.”

[Originally published in JAZZ TIMES: July, 1999]

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5 comments on “Jim Hall–When In Doubt, Just Shut Up And Listen
  1. Sam Moore says:

    Great piece, and great examples. ‘ll be sharing this link with a bunch of people,
    However I’m convinced that at the end he’s not taking about Bill Frisell, but Bill Evans:
    “On ‘My Funny Valentine’ Bill really bails me out on my own solo. He hears that I’m in trouble and he leads me into the next phrase. And when I played rhythm he just instantly stopped using his left hand, because he knew that was covered. He was amazing in that way.”
    If you know the Hall/Evans duet recording of the tune, you’ll know exactly where he’s referring to. Also the left-hand comment makes no sense if he’s talking about Frisell.
    Very glad to have seen this – thanks for posting.

    • radiofreechip says:

      Excellent catch, and thanks so much for clarifying that and joining the conversation…I am sure you are correct about the Evans/Hall musical reference. Will look to embed that specific musical example in a subsequent post…we are querying some of Jim’s extended family of guitarists for their fave Jim Hall performances, and I am sure that “My Funny Valentine” with Bill Evans will make the cut, as most certainly will one of my faves, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” with Art Farmer, Steve Swallow and Walter Perkins from the Half Note sessions on Atlantic.

  2. Randolph Roeder says:

    Very grateful for having read this ….. Thank you so much.

  3. Jon Damian says:

    Thank you for all of these wonderful memories and insights into a great master and source of inspiration.

  4. Thanks for this. Great information and insight from a true master musician.

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