Jim Hall Lets His Guitar Do the Talking

Jim Hall speaks softly and carries an electric guitar. If he has never attained the fame many fellow musicians feel he has earned, it could be due to the lack of any aggressive trait in his personality.

He is nevertheless secure, having been sought out by some of the most eminent soloists in jazz. At present he has his own quartet, has managed to bring it with him from New York, and will be appearing tonight at McCabe's in Santa Monica.

"I'm happy with this group," Hall said during a recent visit to Los Angeles with his wife, Jane, a psychoanalyst. "Gil Goldstein, who plays piano and synthesizer, was the synth player in Gil Evans' last band. Terry Clarke is a drummer from Canada--I've worked with him off and on for years--and Steve La Spina is an incredible bass player. We have an album out on Concorde." ("All Across the City," CCD 4384.)

When Hall talks about himself, you have the feeling that he might rather be dealing with some other topic. Tennis, for instance, inspired some of his compositions ("Cross Court," "Down the Line" and, on the new album, "Drop Shot"); among his friends he numbers Don Budge and several other kings of the court, as well as the cartoonist Gary Larson, who took guitar lessons from him all summer and became a good pal. ("We're going up to see him in Seattle--he's doing the cover for a new book I'm writing, a combination instruction and personal reflection book.")

When the conversation drifts to musicians, he finds succinct comments on some of the giants with whom he has worked:

* On Ben Webster, the legendary ex-Ellington saxophonist: "I was living out here in Los Angeles; Ben didn't have a car and was a bachelor. I was the only other bachelor in the group and always had to chauffeur him around, which was an honor. The others were Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell and Frank Butler; in fact, Contemporary just put out an album we made with that band." ("Ben Webster at the Renaissance," OJCCD 390-2).

* On pianist Bill Evans: "He was a friend of mine in New York and was a big influence on my playing before he made that duo album in 1959."

* On Paul Desmond: "He was one of our closest friends. He used to come over and play Scrabble with Jane all the time, and he was just as brilliant at that as he was playing the saxophone. I just sat there and watched them."

* On saxophonist Lee Konitz: "I did some duet work with Lee, which at times was fantastic, but at other times it was difficult, because if he didn't feel like playing he'd just stand there and pout. But it was a great experience."

* On Sonny Rollins: "Joining Sonny was probably the best move I ever made. During that year and a half with him a lot of people came to accept me who might not even have heard me otherwise. I came to the attention of Art Blakey, Max Roach, people like that who put their stamp of approval on me. John Coltrane used to come in; he influences me tremendously with his use of thematic material, his ability to take a tune apart and just sort of examine it. But Sonny himself was a prime force--an incredible virtuoso."

* Art Farmer: "I was with Art right after I left Sonny. He had just switched from trumpet to fluegelhorn. I loved Art's lyricism, just as I did Miles' playing."

"Which Miles do you mean?"

Hall laughed. "Well, let's say especially the group he had with Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. I worked opposite that band at one time and had wonderful opportunities to appreciate what they were doing."

To these names, Hall added those of Chico Hamilton, the drummer in whose unique chamber jazz quintet he played in 1959, and Jimmy Giuffre, of whom he observes: "Jimmy was a sort of father figure to me. He helped me in many ways, influencing my phrasing, showing me how to blend with his sax or clarinet, and how to get rid of picking noises."

Hall has often been compared to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, whose records he listened to as a young man in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, he still attempts to achieve a sound quality that is not hampered by electronics.

"I still have my old Gibson guitar and my old tube amplifier. I try to keep that sound going, but it gets harder all the time, because the equipment falls apart and the engineers' ears have changed.

"It's so rough to go into a studio--and this happened to me in Argentina just as it happens here--and find some emissary coming out from the control booth and saying 'Can't you get more highs on that amp?' That's just the opposite of what I want, of course."

In one small Italian town, he says, at an attractive hall that had been built for intimate recitals, "we walked in and found these stacks of speakers on the stage hissing away. It was like defiling the place. I just said, 'Get those things out of here!' and we wound up doing the concert almost acoustically."

Another contretemps was avoided when Hall went to Rio two years ago. "There was an ironic touch here, because it was advertised as 'Free Jazz Festival,' and of course I assumed they expected to hear me play free jazz; but that turned out to be just the name of the cigarette company that was sponsoring what was actually a rather loud, electric fusion kind of festival. Well, I just came onstage with my guitar and my little amp, and I think I won the critics over with a sort of reverse psychology.

"In general, I love Brazilian music; one musician I greatly admire is Egberto Gismonti, the guitarist, composer and pianist. I love Bill Frisell's work, too; and there are a couple of students at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where I'm a teacher, who show great promise.

"Overall, I'd say yes, I have hope for the future, including my own. It's sort of come full circle, to where I'm learning from the younger guys; and that's fine with me."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World