Went to see Jim Hall and Ron Carter play duets last week and was reminded how deeply their art impacted me when I first started listening to jazz. Their Alone Together disc is classique to say the least. Hall is the hero of many string players, and I wondered which pieces other guitarists might choose when asked about favorites. The response is also the kickoff of a new franchise called “Five by Five.” Five players weighing in on one common subject. Hats off to the participants and Jim himself. Which JH tunes are you knocked out by? Tell the world in the “Comments” section below.
1. Anthony Wilson: “Careful,” with Michel Petrucciani
I remember one of the first times I heard Jim Hall was with Michel Petrucciani, and I got to hear them do this song. I remember vividly the altered blues/diminished kind of thing. They were playing beautiful standards, and then they got to that tune, and it sounded so modern, startling and incredible. I remembered that there was a performance on YouTube, so it would be perfect choice for this list. The first thing that stands out is the angular melody starting over the hypnotic groove. I’ve heard “Careful” played various ways, but I like the setup of this duo. At first you get that rush of tri-tones and half-step/whole step alternating…and they’re grooving so hard you’re with them immediately. Boom: it takes nothing to join them. Jim is a master duo player. He knows exactly where to place himself in relation to another person. His time is so relaxed. I love the ease with which his right hand plays, too. When he stings a note it really stands out. Great texture, very percussive. He brings in the blues, gets lyrical by bending strings. There’s such an array of colors that he brings to six choruses. And with zero flash. Rather than trying to be impressive, he reaches for things that are, in themselves, interesting. Many guitarists don’t make that kind of choice. But fast flurries for their own sake aren’t even an issue for Jim Hall – he would never do that. Equally interesting: the way he comps. As Petrucciani develops his ideas, Jim’s right there in the conversation. He’s always flowing, which is really hard to do. And not just playing 4/4, but truly engaging the partner. It’s playful. Even when you’re playing in a modern framework, there should be no fear to play the blues a bit. When you play a blue phrase – which is a beautiful thing that younger people might shy away from because they don’t want to be ‘old style’ or something – it has real impact. Jim Hall, even when he’s playing in a more angular way, reminds me of blues players of old. There’s something in his attack. It funny that I can so vividly remember first seeing him play this tune. The things that are formative really stay with you. I can always remember seeing them play “Careful” when I was a teenager.
2. Steve Cardenas: “I Hear a Rhapsody,” Jim Hall Live (Horizon)
That whole record is incredible, and that performance has struck me for a long time. In a way there are a lot of Jim Hall elements in that. You hear signature ideas. For a long time there was this notion of “Oh, Jim Hall, the gentleman guitar player, he doesn’t display chops, etc.” I thought that was funny because Jim Hall has as much chops as anyone and if you need proof, listen to “I Hear a Rhapsody.” He’s all over the place on that thing. It’s not as if he’s trying to do anything slick, he’s just playing his heart out, and that’s what comes out. He does it so effortlessly. Like wow, if anyone ever doubted that he had abilities beyond playing the one beautiful note, here’s the proof. Not only that, but what’s going on between him, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke is amazing, a real conversation. It almost sounds orchestrated, but you can tell that’s simply the way they improvise together. On this record we’re hearing Jim Hall in an extremely comfortable environment and we’re hearing things that probably wouldn’t have happened in the studio. The relaxed situation allows him to go beyond on this one. I think this is the first Jim Hall album I bought, and it has has always unfolded for me over the years. Seems like every time I listen to it, I’m hearing new things. It’s that kind of record.
3. Bill Frisell: “My Man Is Gone Now,” Intermodulation (Verve)
When I was young and I found Jim Hall, there was an extended moment where I really had some blinders on. Everything I did was Jim. I had the same guitar, I played the same way, I would have shaved my head if I had the guts. It was a mimicery thing. I stayed in that zone for a few years. I had heard Wes Montgomery, and that got me going. “Oh man,” right? And I found a teacher in Colorado. He was encouraging me, “Yeah,you sound like Kenny Burrell, keep going.” He was being nice. He said, “Ever heard of Jim Hall? His playing might not jump out at you right away, but if you take a sec, it will.” So I got Intermodulation, the second duet disc with Bill Evans. From the moment I heard “My Man Is Gone Now,” I loved it. His sound, and the way they were playing together. I was drawn in. I’ve been trying to play that song ever since. When I first connected with Paul Motian, we rehearsed at his place with Marc Johnson, who Paul had just met, and we were just going to try and play a bit. We said “Okay, what tunes do we want to do?” And “My Man Is Gone” was one of the things we tried. Motian and Marc…Bill Evans, right? I was intimidated. I’d been trying to play that song for 20 years and couldn’t really do it. But back to Jim & Bill: the track is so simple, there’s nothing extra messing things up. And wow, the emotional power. I love both of those duet records. I’ve come to realize that the second one is a bit more tentative, which I like.
4. Julian Lage: “My Funny Valentine,” Undercurrent (Blue Note)
Choosing the song was a no-brainer for me. I got into this track when I was nine years old. I remember my teacher telling me to check out Jim Hall. I’d heard a couple things by him, but this was the one that stuck. The CD had two versions, and I studied the difference between the two. Became obsessed with them, really. At first I was knocked out by the rhythm guitar playing; Jim kind of takes an adaptation of the Freddie Green approach. No matter what Bill Evans does – block-chord, single note – Jim is never opposing him. He’s always working towards Bill. I was just saying friend today that there’s this incredible steadfastness to Jim’s playing, meaning no matter what figure or idea he plays, he lets it live a full life. He might offer fragments of a line, but he shows you variations. At many points, if Bill were to drop out completely, Jim’s line would be its own fascinating statement. It baffles me. His lines are so clear. He’s a metronome in the best sense, solid but human. And he’s often got this free floating thing going on. I studied these tracks six years straight, no joke. My parents used to always keep the CD in their car. Another idea: The tone he has is rather unheard of. If I had that set-up I feel like I’d be totally dry, no nuance. But Jim sounds like he’s in a cathedral. The reverb is in his touch. Brilliance and clarity of intention – wow. If you have a healthy relationship with your touch, it’s going to come through crystal clear, whether you play through a tin can or a state of the art sound system.
5. Mike Baggetta: “In a Sentimental Mood,” Dedications and Inspirations (Tel Arc)
He was one of the main guys I’d listen to when I was figuring out my direction. These days I revisit him for inspiration. He reminds me of what I enjoy about music. I picked this tune because it’s like a distillation of the things that make Jim Hall Jim Hall. He has some humor here. He’s quoting “Mood Indigo” with the actual Ellington voicings, but in distant keys from “In a Sentimental Mood,” so it’s a bit of a funny sidestep. And I don’t think of him having a heavy blues voice, but he sneaks in some really traditional blues lines, which is another great Jim Hall thing: sneaking stuff into a piece in really creative ways. You’re always surprised about what he did and where he did it. The other thing I hear in Jim Hall is the motion he puts into a piece. In this track, he’ll interpret the melody in a certain way and the line will go down and become the bass line and you get these two-note motion things that are interesting. It really keeps things moving in a very personal way. He’s got that kind of legato touch, but he goes from note to note – he’s almost sliding around. It’s almost like the individual notes don’t matter, because the way he gets there directs your ear so strongly. It’s a really heavy thing about his playing that gets overlooked: How he gets from place to place. That subtlety of sound and dynamics. Incredible. My dad is a guitar player. We had Jim Hall records. The other reason I picked this track is because when I was a teenager I loved this track so much I wrote him a letter. I wanted to tell him how much I loved the piece. I didn’t know what was going on musically, but the piece moved me. I wrote to the label, Tel Arc Jazz. A couple weeks later I was doing my homework or whatever the phone rings, and my dad says, “Hey, it’s for you. It’s Jim Hall.” I said “Get out of here,” but it really was. I picked up the phone and low and behold it was Jim. I don’t even remember what we talked about. I was too thrilled. Amazingly, he had gotten the letter, read it, dialed information and called. Amazing. Who would do that, go that far? I would up taking some classes with him later.