Thoughts On Jim Hall

There’s nothing new here I can say about Hall or his playing that other far better qualified people have not already said. When players of the calibre of Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans and Miles Davis calling to work with you, that says enough.

One point, however, that is not as widely discussed – and no doubt played a role in inspiring those titans to call – was that Hall was an extraordinary rhythm guitarist with impeccable time and swing (“He swings like a motherfucker,” a university lecturer proclaimed), and was a sensitive and reactive comp’er, perhaps the best, at least among guitarists.

“When you have a guitarist of the calibre of Jim Hall, you really don’t need a piano. There are only a few piano players around who would be able to play with Jim, without being superficial.” Art Farmer

Hall’s improvisational mandate was to shape his solos using form and thematic (or motivic, as he termed it) development. This was present in his solos from the beginning but matured during his stint with Sonny Rollins, the top-tier thematic improviser. Hall goes into some detail on this in both his book and masterclass videos, but one can learn as much by going to the source: any solo of his from the early ‘60s to the end will be abundantly populated with thematic development and considerations of form. My favourite is the solo on Bill Evans’ “Interplay” (1964) where Hall bases his entire solo around a single recurring theme.

Where does someone unfamiliar with Hall start? The consensus seems to be on Sonny Rollin’s The Bridge (1962) as the best of Hall; John Abercrombie even taught a class on it. Steve Khan, on the other hand, has been evangelically promoting the series of recordings with Paul Desmond as the best and has posted a number of insightful transcriptions from these records. I urged you to check all of the above out.

Here are a few alternative, non exhaustive, suggestions:

Jazz Guitar (1957) You must hear Hall play rhythm guitar. On this debut album, in a trio of bass, guitar and piano, Hall’s exceptional ability to swing is exposed and tested throughout. While his finest moment of rhythm is not here (backing Bill Evan’s on an uptempo “My Funny Valentine” from Undercurrent (1962)), there is much more of it. His solo on “Stella by Starlight” was the first of his I learned, and displays all the embryonic elements of his mature style: the thematic development, the confident toying with rhythm, that exceptional swing. There was (is?) an alternate version of this album with drums overdubbed and the sideman solos cut which doesn’t seem to be in circulation anymore. There are several interviews where Hall vents his frustration over this perversion of his record. I’d be curious to hear it, if it’s still out there somewhere.

Alone Together (1972) One of the great attractions for me of any live jazz recording is the sound of the audience. Hearing the indistinct sound of clinking glass; the lighting of cigarettes; faint chatter; the tense relationship between quality of applause and the quality of a solo…all of these sounds add to the atmosphere of being in a jazz club and the quieter the band, the more prominent the audio from the audience. Ron Carter and Jim Hall’s duet set here is incredibly understated and subtle, almost as if they are afraid of drowning out the patrons’ conversation. Despite being conservative in regards to decibels, the music is of the highest quality, achieving almost telepathic levels of interactions with some ambitious harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns. One has to lean in and strain a touch to catch the depth of what’s going on here; at times the subtlety can be mistaken for wallpaper, but great riches await those willing to listen a little harder.

Live! (1975) This almost forgotten album – that faced a decades long struggle to be reprinted on CD – features a totally uninhibited Hall who – despite having all his usual sensitivities – really burns his way through these improvisations, showing a level of technical facility only hinted at during the bulk of his recorded work. Despite all this flash, what remains most impressive is just how quiet Hall can be and how even in a trio with no other harmonic instrument, Hall is unafraid to play a single note and let it breathe into the vacuum of the bass and the drums.

Jim Hall is not where you go to hear chops, yet, like his two successors John Scofield and Bill Frisell – and despite his self deprecating attitude on such matters, (“Listening to Pat Martino tapes…may make me love [his] playing, but it’s liable to discourage Jim Hall the guitar player…” or “Concentration is key…especially since I’m not a virtuoso guitarist.” (Hall, 1990, pg13) sounding as effortless as he does while playing the things he does requires a formidable level of facility. I learned a lot about technique playing along with Jim. Reinforcing this is a remark by George Benson – perhaps the most technically endowed guitarist in jazz – concerning a brief trio he had with Jim Hall and Barney Kessell:

“Barney and Jim were veterans, and brilliant ones at that, and they beat me up every night…most people know Jim as a mellow, thoughtful player, but when you put him in a competitive situation  – and if anybody tells you these kinds aren’t competitive, they’re flat lying – his fingers flew like the wind.”

Of special note for guitarists’ is Hall’s legato style. Early in his career, he played in an unusual guitar/woodwind/bass trio with bandleader Jimmy Giuffre. During his tenure in this ensemble, Hall would often have to play unison lines with the clarinet, often being instructed by Giuffre to “find another way to finger that.” The bandleader’s issue lay in that Hall was prone to picking every note which created a “choppy” sound next to the more legato sound of the clarinet. As a result, Hall set about practising so as to remove unnecessary pick strokes from the guitar. His practise resulted in his development of two techniques now referred to by guitarists as economy picking (moving the pick in the path of least resistance when moving strings) and legato (using hammer-ons and pull-offs). Hall did not invent these techniques, but his use of them is incredibly personal and are a very identifiable featuring of his playing, playing no small part in achieving his smooth, assured sound.

I’d like to share some audio with you. Hall was the subject of my third year university Transcription Project where I had to learn, notate and record brief excerpts of his solos. I’ll be including these transcriptions, amongst others, in the (soon-to-come) Transcription Section of this website, but for now I’ve attached the audio from my transcription of Hall’s A Section Solo over Monk’s “’Round Midnight”