ASK JAZZ GUITAR GIANTS JOHN SCOFIELD, Pat Metheny, or Bill Frisell to
name their influences, and Jim Hall’s name will be in the top ten. And
yet, you’d be hard-pressed to hear any of them play a Jim Hall “riff.”
This is because Hall’s playing is largely a riff-free zone. His elegant
theme-and-variation lines are a response to a tune’s melody and harmony,
to the other players in the ensemble, and to his own emotional
connection to the music. All of this is specific to the
moment—unrepeatable, thus not learnable. This agenda-less approach to
making music, more than any specific notes Hall plays, has impressed
itself into Scofield’s generation and the next, and it has made Hall the
guitarist of choice for jazz legends such as Sonny Rollins, Chico
Hamilton, and Jimmy Giuffre.
Hall’s cliché-free style can be traced, in part, to his being exposed to a combination of formal composition and jazz-guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. His mother gave him a guitar when he was ten, and, by 13, he was playing with dance bands in Cleveland. Though jazz wasn’t in the repertoire, a clarinet player introduced him to Benny Goodman’s recording of “Solo Flight,” featuring Christian.
“It was instant addiction,” says Hall.
After high school, Hall entered the Cleveland Institute of Music, majoring in music theory.
“I knew nothing about classical music, but, in school, I heard everything from Gregorian chants to 12-tone music. My favorite classical composers included Stravinsky, because his work made be think of Woody Herman’s band, and Hindemith, who reminded me of Stan Kenton’s band. Bartok became my hero. The guy I studied composition with had been a close friend of [modern composer Arnold] Schoenberg, and Schoenberg’s music opened my ears a lot. It must have been similar to a young painter seeing a Miro or a Jackson Pollack—it just freed my imagination. This music showed me that you could take chances. You could apply a far-out phrase to ‘Body and Soul,’ and bail out okay at the end.”
Hall studied for a Master’s in composition, but then “panicked,” and moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune. In L.A., Hall’s classical-meets-Christian background made him an obvious choice for the chamber-jazz ensembles of Hamilton and Giuffre. Both groups emphasized arrangement over lengthy improvised solos, and Hall subsequently applied the tenets of classical-music composition to his improvisations.
“You see everything in terms of a painting, rather than running through chord changes,” he says of this approach. “It makes the group into a blank canvas that you use to paint on. I play something, reflect on what I’ve done, and then try to go from there, rather than just running my fingers over the guitar—which I don’t do too well anyway. To do this while playing in a trio, I try to get tuned in to each person in the group. For example, each of the drummer’s cymbals does more than just set the time, they also have a pitch to them, and a texture that I can play off of. I hear the bass as a lower extension of the guitar, and I react to what the bassist is playing in terms of the chord voicings I might use, or what I might do with my single-note improvisations. So, you see, a trio is not just a guitar with a rhythm section—it’s a three-part invention.”
Hall’s deep listening—and his sense of structure—are crucial elements on Hemispheres [ArtistShare], a collaboration with Bill Frisell. Hall’s sound normally involves an archtop plugged directly into an amp, and Frisell wields a solidbody and a plethora of pedals, but the men share a musical aesthetic.
“I try to make everything into a composition, one way or another, and I think Bill is amazing at that,” says Hall. “He is fantastic at listening to what you play.”
Hall’s avoidance of clichés is so intense, that he developed a practice regimen for himself and his students that decimates creative comfort zones.
“I will take the guitar, tune it randomly, and say, ‘Make something out of this—whatever the notes are. Take the material and develop it,’” he explains. “Or, I’ll have someone play ‘All the Things You Are’ using solely a three-note motif. I even made one of my students—someone who had formidable technique—play on just one string.”
Hall’s harmonic sense is another element that spotlights his uniqueness. Many guitarists have since adopted his distinctive use of major and minor seconds, but “pre-Hall,” these intervals were more often associated with pianists, whose fingers could access them more easily.
“I got to hear [pianist] Bill Evans a lot before I worked with him,” say Hall. “Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre, and I worked opposite Miles Davis’ group—with Julian Adderley, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Bill Evans—at the Café Bohemia in New York for eight weeks. I loved Bill’s touch, and his chord voicings. For example, he did ‘Spring Is Here’ on a record with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Now, the first chord is supposed to be an Ab, but Bill plays an E7#9, and LaFaro plays a low E. The song lyric is poignantly sad—the person who is singing has lost something—and Bill’s choice of harmony sets the perfect mood.”
Hall was influenced by the generation before him, and he has obviously informed younger generations, but his willingness to be taught by his students reflects the spirit of adventure and openness that allowed the septuagenarian to come to guitar effects late in life.
“It is full circle,” he says. “Now, I find myself learning from the younger guys, who have taught me not to be afraid to go a little further out than I usually do. For instance, I resisted all that effects stuff for years, and then Bob Brookmeyer wrote a piece for orchestra that had me using a couple of stompboxes— I forget which ones, although, after that, I played around with a Boss Chorus, and I used a Digitech Whammy on the Sonny Rollins standard, ‘St. Thomas.’ So after fooling around with the pedals, I realized that they put my brain in a different orbit, and it was actually helpful—different things would come out.”
Hall’s current amp is a Polytone Mini-Brute II.
“For years, I had a Gibson GA50 tube amp that I loved,” he says, “but every time I had to get on an airplane, I took all the tubes out and packed them. It just got too dicey to schlep that amp around. Now, I don’t take an amp with me at all. My manager just requests a Mini-Brute. I actually use an amplifier to play softer, because I feel that I can get a beautiful sound out of the guitar, and still project with an amplifier. I don’t have to hit the strings hard.”
While most guitarists are serial monogamists when it comes to picks, Hall keeps a harem.
“I have three different thicknesses of D’Aquisto picks—heavy, medium, and light,” he explains. “Generally, I will use a medium for playing melodies, because it gets a nice, round sound. I’ll use a thin pick if I’m going to play a calypso, or some kind of zany rhythmic thing. I use the heavy one for ballads. I imagine it must be the same for drummers who decide whether to use sticks or brushes. There’s a tonal effect, of course, but you also play a bit differently, depending on what you use. For me, it’s also that I have a low boredom threshold—I like to try different things.”
After years of using D’Aquisto guitars, Hall now employs his signature model Sadowsky.
“I used to take my D’Aquistos to Roger Sadowsky to have them adjusted, so he knows how I like a guitar to sound and feel,” says Hall. “So, Roger tried to make my signature guitar look and feel like a D’Aquisto, and he has done a beautiful job.”
If any guitarist deserves a signature instrument, it is Hall—a player who embodies all the best elements present in jazz: harmonic and melodic sophistication, deep listening, unerring time, and a respect for the past, while heading fearlessly into the future.
“When I seek to inspire myself or my students, I remember a quote from John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet,” says Hall. “Lewis said, ‘Music is your reward. You don’t get anything richer than that. It adds something priceless to your life that nobody else can take from you.’”