04.12. – Happy Birthday !!! The jazz guitarist Jim Hall was a modest maestro with immense influence. Hall played an electric instrument often prone to hyperbole with an irresistibly quiet delicacy, and his improvisations were as shapely as fine songs.
He was still performing and initiating new projects in his 80s. When he played at the London Jazz festival in November 2012, he won the audience over before he had even played a note by declaring with characteristic understatement: “It’s great to be … any place, actually.”
On that occasion he performed with a trio: his ingeniously lyrical music sounded just as engaging as it had when his gently weaving lines and coaxing chord-playing with Jimmy Giuffre’s trio graced the title sequence of Bert Stern’s documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz festival, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
Hall spent half a century collaborating with some of jazz’s greatest originals. He toured Europe with Ella Fitzgerald in 1960; played improvised duets with the pianist Bill Evans; imaginatively shadowed the thundering saxophone lines of Rollins in the trio that recorded Rollins’s landmark post-sabbatical album The Bridge (1962); worked with the composer and saxophonist Paul Desmond (1959-65); and, in his later years, put his classical training to use in mixed-genre compositions for jazz groups and string quartets, and orchestral works including the guitar concerto Peace Movement.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Hall was raised in Cleveland. After taking up the guitar at the age of 10, he was playing professionally as a teenager. Although influenced by Benny Goodman’s pioneering young guitar star Charlie Christian, he listened to saxophonists as much as guitarists, for their rounded voice-like tone and their conception of melody.
Hall studied theory and piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the early 1950s (guitars were not on the programme), as well as classical guitar in Los Angeles, and worked with the the drummer Chico Hamilton’s quintet – a significant presence in the reserved new “cool jazz” movement – in 1955-56. He made Jazz Guitar, his first album as a leader, in 1957, and worked until 1959 in a trio with the sophisticated reeds player and composer Giuffre – an experience Hall later credited with training him to keep flawless time without drums. He also taught at the forward-thinking Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, and performed with Rollins, Desmond, Evans, Fitzgerald, Lee Konitz and Ben Webster during a busy freelance period in the 1960s.
Hall later moved to New York, where he performed as a sideman, co-led a group with the trumpeter Art Farmer and formed a trio including the pianist Tommy Flanagan. He briefly joined a talented studio band for Merv Griffin’s TV show in 1965, began his remarkable run of duo explorations with Evans (1966) and Ron Carter (1972), and showed how punchy, affectingly bluesy and melodically succinct his calm improvisations could be, on the album Jim Hall Live! (1975).
In 1981, Hall recorded with both the swing piano star George Shearing and the classical violinist Itzhak Perlman, and throughout the 1980s and 90s he continued to lead sympathetic bands featuring acclaimed younger partners such as the keyboardists Gil Goldstein and Larry Goldings, the saxophonist Chris Potter and the drummer Bill Stewart. In 1986, he partnered the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the pianist Michel Petrucciani for gigs at the Montreux Jazz festival and the Village Vanguard in New York. Four years later he hosted a guitar concert at the JVC Jazz festival in New York, at which he performed with John Scofield, Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie.
In 1991, Hall and Metheny played four duo concerts and later co-led a quartet with the saxophonist Joe Lovano. Hall also began to give unaccompanied shows, aided by electronics that allowed him to play contrapuntally, but without ever blurring the motivic logic and discreet pungency of phrasing that always shaped his signature.
For the 1995 album Dialogues, Hall wrote almost all the music, designed to steer intimate conversations with partners including Lovano and the guitarist Bill Frisell and Mike Stern. For Textures, in 1996, he moved closer to classically inflected chamber music. His jazz quartet was augmented by strings on the album Jazzpar Quartet + 4 (1998), which was recorded to celebrate the guitarist’s receipt of Denmark’s prestigioushis receiving the Danish Jazzpar prize and which included Hall’s classical piece Thesis and a version of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.
Composition and teaching played significant parts in Hall’s later career. He taught at the New School for Social Research, in New York (1990-95), and wrote the instructional book Exploring Jazz Guitar (1991). Transcriptions of his playing have guided aspiring guitarists everywhere.
In his 70s, Hall seemed to get even better as a performer. The live albums Grand Slam: Live at the Regattabar (2000) and Magic Meeting (2004) found him sometimes sounding more animated and carefree than he had in his circumspect youth. In 2004 he received a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and though health issues troubled him later in the decade, he continued to compose and perform. In 2013 he began releasing new live recordings through ArtistShare, a platform financed by fans’ contributions. In the summer of 2013 Hall returned to the Newport Jazz festival to play with the 25-year-old guitarist Julian Lage, a musician of comparable melodic grace and fertility of ideas.
After the announcement of Hall’s death, Rollins declared: “I don’t know anybody who didn’t love him, including myself. He was the consummate musician, and it was a privilege to work with him.”
Hall is survived by his wife, Jane, whom he married in 1965, and by his daughter, Devra, who was also his manager.
James Stanley Hall, guitarist, born 4 December 1930; died 10 December 2013.