It was more than 40 years ago, and I was growing up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, Jeff Beck, Peter Townshend, et al. Fantastic guitar playing, a lot of grandstanding, pelvic thrusts, burning guitars, broken up amps…and I had just heard the Woodstock LPs, and figured that the guitar was the phallic symbol of the Rock Age.
Then I heard Jim Hall – perhaps it was with Bill Evans (Intermodulation? Undercurrent?), or was it with Sonny Rollins (The Bridge?). It was a long time ago, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Quiet, understated, he forced you to listen and listen hard. There’s a story that in a club, his natural habitat, if Jim found the conversation getting too loud, he’d turn his amp volume down. He gently, quietly forced you to pay attention.
Over these 40 odd years, he has remained to me the poet who used the guitar rather than the pen. There’s this haiku I found on the Net (I don’t know who’s the author)
Making jazz swing
Ain’t no square-
Jim was no square poet. The man played with Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and tons of others of that ilk. No shortage of swingers in that group. His disciples, if I may use that term, include Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, John Abercombie and tons of others. Not a square poet in that lot either. He swung like crazy – just check out any of his albums.
His was the sound of divine modesty. Like the man, his music wasn’t out to overwhelm you with volume, speed, incredible runs, and signature riffs. He never experimented with wah-wah pedals or feedback; he stayed true to his own voice and his own style, exemplifying taste, patience, and elegance on an instrument increasingly associated with aggressive musical fireworks.
The modesty belonged with the man. Here are three quotes I found from the Net:
- Berklee awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2005… and in 2007 he was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Although gratified by these and other honours, his attitude remained typically quizzical and low-key: “I’ll be doing an interview about it on the telephone, and the guitar sits there in the corner and says, ‘Yeah, big deal! Try to tune me today!’ It’s a mystery.”
- In an interview in 2003, he said, “My playing used to be a little bit conservative, but I think I’ve gained courage. It’s not that I’m playing better. I certainly don’t have more chops. I guess it’s just lack of fear! I just basically don’t give a damn now. I feel I’m OK.”
- “The instrument keeps me humble,” he once told Guitar Player magazine. “Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”
There is something cleansing about Jim Hall’s music. I can’t explain that; the nearest I can come are these lines from Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark:
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers –
All that ever was
Joyous and clear and fresh – thy music doth surpass.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! RIP and thanks for all the music.
(Jim Hall was born on 4 December 1930 and died on 10 December 2013)