February 18, 2014

Jim Hall, Guitar Pioneer (1930-2013)

As most everyone has heard by now modern jazz guitar pioneer Jim Hall left this life to join the big jam session in the sky on Dec 10 of last year (2013). Jim had long been been a principal of my personal Pantheon of Guitar Gods. I first heard his playing on Sonny Rollins' The Bridge, one of the seminal jazz recordings of the early 1960s, an experience which has never left me. The tautness of his lines, the judiciousness of his comping, the understated melodic genius, the fierce rhythmic vehemence, just knocked me flat. He was the perfect foil to Rollins' ebullient and lush tenor saxophone. Rollins' decision to record without a piano was, at the time, an unconventional one, leaving Jim's guitar solely to anchor the harmony in the group (which also included Bob Cranshaw and Ben Riley). For good reason, that record made history. It is a landmark of late 20th century jazz.

But The Bridge is far from the only monumental recording to have featured Jim's singular genius. The very next year (1963), he followed up with an album of duets with pianist Bill Evans, UndercurrentUndercurrent has since become the pinnacle, the gold standard of latter-day guitar-piano duets.

To say that Jim's recording credits read like a who's-who of modern jazz would be a gross understatement. Among the luminaries who chose him for the guitar chair are Paul Desmond, Tommy Flanagan, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Tony Bennett, Ron Carter, Gary Burton, and on and on. Suffice to say that from the late 50s through the late 90s, Jim Hall was the go-to guitarist for tasteful, imaginative, modern guitar. The list of essential recordings featuring his playing is far too long to enumerate here. However a short list of recordings that should absolutely not be missed will be appended below. His best-known recording may well be the 1999 set with fellow guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny has publicly acknowledged his debt to Hall, calling that recording a tribute to him.

Hall was hardly known only as a sideman though. In addition to supporting the greatest names in late 20th century jazz, he cut many recordings under his own name, often with his "standard" trio of himself, keyboardist/bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. In addition, over the course of his long career he was constantly in demand for performances, and even did a stint in the house band for the Merv Griffin Show. As if that weren't enough, Jim was a prolific composer, his output including pieces for jazz and string quartets, as well as a concerto for guitar and orchestra.

As if all this weren't enough, Hall was also an educator, teaching at New York's New School, for example. I know that Pete Bernstein (another pillar of my Pantheon) had studied with Jim there for a time.

The last time I saw Jim was back in the mid-2000s, at the now-defunct Jazz Bakery where he was performing with his trio. Before the gig he was surrounded by a throng of loyal fans and students. The trio played a wonderful set though I can no longer recall the exact material. Afterward I spoke to him briefly. As always he was witty, irascible, and profound. Last year I heard through the grapevine that he wasn't well, though apparently he was still playing great. His loss was therefore not a surprise, but it is a great one and saddens me deeply.

Jim had an approach to the instrument that was truly unique and yet immensely versatile. He never sounded like anyone else, although echoes of his style can be heard in many of today's younger players. His impeccable harmonic sense, his delicate articulation, his intelligence, his taste and restraint, all contributed to his inimitable sound. He was not afraid to plug his ax into outboard effects, or to include synthesizers in his group. He was a true pioneer of the instrument, an eminent musician, a good man, a national treasure, and he will be sorely missed.