Born in Cleveland in 1930, Hall was turned on to jazz guitar by Charlie Christian. But by the time he reached his 20s, Hall was knee-deep into classical music, composing 12-tone pieces and string quartets, eventually studying classical guitar with Vincente Gomez in 1955. Hall’s big break came when he replaced Howard Roberts in Chico Hamilton’s quintet. Subsequently, Hall went on to perform and record with everyone from Stan Getz to Ella Fitzgerald, and fromPaul Desmond (The Complete Recordings of the Paul Desmond Quartet with Jim Hall is a must for anyone looking to dive headlong into Hall’s playing) to Ben Webster (At The Renaissance smokes!).
Hall’s calling cards were—and continue to be—an unparalleled sense of harmonic elegance, and a wonderful use of space, as he single-handedly expanded the palette of jazz guitar with an intense, understated musicality that inspired the likes of Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern, and John Abercrombie. The 1998 film, A Life In Progress, is a touching overview of Hall’s mastery, as it contains vintage clips, as well as new performances and interviews. Hall’s book, Exploring Jazz Guitar is also an essential study, as is Adam Levy’s GP lesson “Less Is More” from the August ’99 issue.
Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, 1962
Tenor sax colossus Rollins is a big influence on Hall, and hearing the two together is a must for any guitarist, as the two are able to turn a tune inside out with far-reaching improvisations. Hall handles the insane tempo of the title cut with startling proficiency, easily tackling the falling-down-the-stairs head, and deftly quoting Charlie Christian during his solo, while the ballad “Where Are You” is a case study in understated, emotive elegance—and dig how Hall even bends a string! You get two masters of modern improvisation for the price of one.
Jim Hall and Ron Carter, Alone Together, 1972
You’d be hard pressed to name a jazz guitarist who has thrived in the duo setting more than Hall. On this pairing with bass giant Ron Carter, you may find yourself getting lost in the beauty of Hall’s breathtaking time and his dark, rich tone, just as much as his heady lines and über-tasty accompaniment. The interplay between Hall and Carter is telepathic, and the duet would record the equally stunning Live at Village West ten years later.
Jim Hall & Pat Metheny, 1999
One of Hall’s most popular 6-string disciples, Metheny complements Hall’s D’Aquisto archtop (before that, Hall relied on a Gibson ES-175 formerly owned by Howard Roberts. He currently plays a signature model Sadowsky archtop.) with electric and acoustic guitar textures, as well as a fretless classical, and a Pikasso 42-string guitar. The two tackle everything from cleverly arranged standards (“Summertime”), to improvisations where Hall and Metheny get locked into various call-and-response shenanigans.
Jimmy Giuffre, The Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1957
A towering figure in the “cool school” of jazz, Giuffre was also a proponent of a style dubbed “chamber jazz,” due to the music’s sparse instrumentation and impressionistic harmonies. Giuffre’s intriguing lineups gave Hall a chance to strut his stuff. The “3” on this record consisted of Ralph Pena (or Jim Atlas) on bass, Hall, and Giuffre on clarinet and tenor or baritone sax—a piano-less, drum-less trio. In this stark setting, Hall’s mastery of harmony is front-and-center. The second incarnation of Giuffre’s 3 can be seen in the flick Jazz on a Summer’s Day, performing “The Train and the River.” This trio is sans bass, and features trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Giuffre, and Hall. Now that’s a power trio!
Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Interplay, 1962
Along with Giuffre and Hall, Bill Evans is considered one of the few artists in jazz to successfully merge jazz with a classical sensibility. With trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Percy Heath, and, of course, the incomparable Evans on piano, Hall is surrounded by monster players, and he flaunts a fat, breathy tone, with a lovely note-shaping attack that really gives his lines a singing quality. Plus, you get two versions of the standard, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” so you can compare Hall and company’s different improvisations over the same tune. Sweet.
Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Undercurrent, 1963
In a guitar/piano duo, the chances of harmonic clashes are sky high. But when Evans and Hall get to work, the results are nothing short of astounding. The two are so sympathetic to each other’s playing that, at times, they finish each other’s lines, and fill out complex chords between the two of them.
Featuring Chet Baker on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass, Paul Desmond on alto, Roland Hanna on piano, and Steve Gadd on drums, this record is perfect for those looking to delve into Hall’s sophisticated sense of composition, arrangement, and unparalleled improvisations, but who aren’t necessarily jazz fans, as Gadd mixes some straight—almost rock—grooves into the mix. Highlights include Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a nearly 20-minute slow-burn extravaganza, and “Two’s Blues,” which sports a jaunty, angular head and a killer Hall solo that, for me, ends much too quickly.
Jim Hall And Friends, Volume 2, Live at Town Hall, 1991
To be fair, “tired” is a tad brutal description of this live set. I mean, Hall’s “friends” include Mick Goodrick, John Abercrombie, Peter Bernstein, and John Scofield. It’s just that rarely do these type of super summits result in transcendent performances, much less transcendent records.