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Jazz great Jim Hall's guitar is still talking in Conversations

After hearing two choruses of Charlie Christian's solo on Benny Goodman's "Grand Slam" in a record store, a thirteen-year old Jim Hall had a spiritual awakening of sorts. "That's what I wanted to do," Hall, now eighty, says about first hearing the song. "It was such a perfect solo — no extra notes or anything. It was a real composition the way he played.

"And I think he might have already been gone," Hall adds. "He died when he was about 24 or 25. But he's still kind of my hero. I feel like he changed me. I remember thinking, 'Whatever that is, I wish I could do it.' It was a perfect solo. No extra frills or anything. I still hear him sometimes in my memory when I play."

That one Charlie Christian solo set Hall on a path that would lead the world-renowned jazz guitarist to eventually perform and record with a slew of legendary artists, including Sonny Rollins, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond and Ornette Coleman.

Before all that, though, Hall studied music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He says he didn't know anything about classical music before starting school; he just knew he wanted to be a musician. He also studied composition at the institute and sees his guitar solos as instant compositions themselves. "I try to make each solo have a statement," he reveals. "A start and an end. I try to relate to what's going on around me, and I listen and react."

While working on his master's degree, Hall panicked and realized he didn't want to spend his whole life in school, so he and a friend cut out to Los Angeles to meet another friend who was a bandleader out there. After Hall worked with Hamilton's group in L.A., pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet convinced him to move to New York and even put him up in an apartment. At the time, Miles Davis lived down the hall from Lewis, and Hall says Davis invited him over to listen to material the trumpeter had been working on with Gil Evans.

Soon after moving to New York, Hall met Rollins, who was playing in an incarnation of Max Roach's group that also featured trumpeter Clifford Brown and pianist Richie Powell. After finding an apartment in Greenwich Village, not too far from where he lives now, Hall started getting notes from Rollins, one of which said, "Dear Jim, I'd like to talk to you about music."

"Sonny came over to the apartment once, and we sat down facing each other, and there was a table in between," Hall recalls. "He had this little plastic bag with him, and he put it on the table. And we're talking about him starting this quartet. Then the bag started wiggling, and I said, 'Sonny, what's in that?' And typical of him, he was so focused that he said, 'We'll talk about that later.' He had been to a pet shop, and he had a little pet chameleon or lizard or something that he was going to take home and put into a cage."

In the early '60s, after taking a few years' hiatus and woodshedding on the Williamsburg Bridge, Rollins invited Hall to join his quartet and record the landmark album The Bridge. While Hall says playing with Rollins was a challenge, the experience proved to be a breakthrough for him.

"It was such an honor to be working with him," declares Hall. "I worked with Art Farmer later on, and Art kind of liked me to play a chord and he would play over it. But Sonny didn't like me to lead him around, so I had no way to check anywhere he was going. He got me practicing, I'll tell you that, because he just played amazingly. Sometimes we'd be in the middle of a tune, and Sonny would stop the band and he'd just explore the tunes by himself for a while and then call us back in."

Since Hall got to work with a number of storied horn players such as Rollins, as well as Desmond, Giuffre and Webster, it's not surprising that his legato guitar phrasing is more horn-like than guitaristic. And his textural playing was also inspired somewhat by working with pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded two duet albums, Undercurrent and Intermodulation.

"He just listened so well," Hall says of Evans. "For instance, Bill liked me to play rhythm guitar sometimes behind him, but as soon as I would start playing rhythm, he would automatically not use his left hand, because that was my area. He was so tuned in, and he was just really magic to play with."

Hall was pretty magical himself. Fellow jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi wrote an article for NPR in which he asserts, "As far as modernizing the sound and vocabulary of jazz guitar to the degree he did, Hall is unmatched." Abbasi also added that Hall's introspection, lyricism, spontaneity and risk-taking further set him apart. For his part, Hall says he never really had great chops for fast playing, so he's always approached playing slightly differently.

"I try to keep it interesting," Hall explains. "It's a cheap word, but I kind of imagine myself in the audience and keep it interesting and have some kind of shape so that it doesn't get boring. Another thing — and I've been saying this more and more — is that I actually use the amplifier in a lot of ways to play softer. I feel like I can get a good sound out of the guitar without banging the strings. I get annoyed with the way amplifiers are being used. This good guitarist would play a concert, and I'd have to hold my fingers, it was so damn loud. It was dangerous. So that kind of puzzled me, that volume thing. It's all one volume. That, I don't really get. I don't think it's an age thing, either. Symphony writers wrote loud sections, too, but if it was all loud, you'd leave the auditorium."

Hall's playing has influenced a number of guitarists over the years, including Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, both of whom he's also recorded with. Hall first met Frisell in Denver, when the latter, who was a kid at the time, was studying with guitarist Dale Bruning. Hall thinks pretty highly of Frisell; he's performed with him over the years and released the duet album Hemispheres with him in 2008. "It's different than anyone that I know who plays," Hall says of Frisell's style. "He uses all those foot pedals, but he uses them so beautifully. He uses them like orchestration, I think."

Hall's most recent effort, Conversations, is a duet album with drummer Joey Baron, and the guitarist says he might record another album for the ArtistShare label, which has released his last few albums and is run by Hall's friend Brian Camelio. In the meantime, Hall says that while his technique really took a shot after he had back surgery a few years ago, he tries to play a couple of hours a day after the muscles on his hands are warmed up. And as big an impact as the past has had on him, Hall is most interested in moving forward.

"One of my sayings is, 'The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there,'" he concludes. "To hell with the past."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon