Hall Delivers Signature Tunes, Tone at Birdland
“Let me waddle past you,” Jim Hall, 81, said to an audience member as he ascended the stage at Birdland on Oct. 3. Hall stoops and shuffles a bit as he walks, but appearances are deceiving. Once seated onstage and after fiddling with the dials on his array of effects, he leans into his signature Sadowsky guitar and plays with the vigor and intellectual daring of a much younger man, yet with no less emotional intelligence than ever. As a musician, Hall has always had an old soul.
A major influence on a generation of guitarists from Pat Metheny to John Scofield to Bill Frisell, Hall is still the king of understatement and introspection when he wants to be. He is just as likely to display an appetite for aggressive swing while retaining his trademark mellow tone and economy of expression.
On a night when most Americans were watching the first presidential debate, Hall packed the house with his supergroup—Greg Osby on alto, Steve LaSpina on upright bass and Joey Baron on drums. While the politicians tended to provide more heat than light, Hall and company provided both.
With Hall, it’s never just about him. He’s an arranger and composer whose main instrument is electric guitar, though he studied piano in conservatory. He has made wonderful studio albums of his own compositions and arrangements, including strings and voices (such as 1998’s By Arrangement). His live shows and albums, like the famous Jim Hall Live! set recorded in Toronto in 1975, showcase imaginative settings he created for standards like “Just the Way You Look Tonight” and “Angel Eyes.”
Hall’s singular arrangements were on display at Birdland. He opened with “Big Blues,” a simple 12-bar progression that he described ironically as “a very complicated tune.” As a hand-warmer, the tune gradually gathered steam, with typically solid support from longtime Hall cohort LaSpina and the propulsive, ever-gleeful Baron. Osby’s presence, however, changed the equation, kicking the whole enterprise into high gear with a bracing, free-flowing solo that took the tune decidedly out of the realm of blues into an angular post-bop world.
“All The Things You Are” has been a staple of Hall’s canon for decades. “It’s my wife’s favorite tune, so I tend to play it a lot,” he said. But, like one of those marriages that are improbably still fresh after decades, he and the song still have interesting things to say to each other. Alongside the energetic LaSpina and the typically ecstatic Baron, Hall created a rhythmic trampoline that allowed Osby to soar so high that the song nearly (but not quite) lost its moorings. Ultimately, the group brought it all the way back home, closing with a beautifully arranged series of surprising substitutions.
Osby has been playing with Hall since the mid-1990s, and they complement each other: Hall’s style and repertoire bring out Osby’s inherent lyricism, and Osby leads Hall into more dissonant, experimental territory.
“Playing with him requires sensitivity and a great deal of restraint,” Osby said after the set. “Jim is a master of dynamics, texture, color and touch, so you can’t be a bull in a china shop. You need to be artful and appropriate.” Disparaging what he described as a macho approach to jazz that he sees in some players, he prefers Hall’s more subtle, delicate approach. “It’s not about cramming as many notes as possible into a phrase,” he says. “We need to end the boys’ club mentality in jazz—we need more women.” (When not playing with Hall, Osby says some of his favorite partners are Geri Allen, Michele Rosewoman and Renee Rosnes, among many other fine, decidedly un-macho players.)
The rest of the set proceeded with, by turns, a fierce swing and lush romanticism, from “In A Sentimental Mood,” to Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” to a loose and gleeful “St. Thomas,” dedicated to his friend Sonny Rollins. Hall drew from a deep bag of tricks that includes octaves, fifths, angular stabs and sliding chromatic chords. In his solos, LaSpina, one of the finest bassists of his generation, displayed the same fluid melodicism that infuses Hall’s playing.
Osby is grateful for the opportunity to work with such a legend. “My generation is the last that had an opportunity to work with the original guys,” Osby said. “I’m lucky to bask in his aura.”
A CD of highlights from the October Birdland gigs will be available shortly on Jim Hall’s page at ArtistShare.com.