Jazz guitarists hereabouts have been in a lather ever since the Outpost appearance of NEA Jazz Master Jim Hall was announced. One of the music’s most distinctive voices, Hall has captivated listeners with a playing style that relies on space and lyricism, and he’s earned distinction as a composer, as well. Still recovering from back surgery that kept him off his instrument for about two years, the 80-year-old icon has released a brand-new album, Conversations (ArtistShare), and is back on the road. He’s working with a quartet that features saxophonist Greg Osby, along with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Joey Baron—major players all—so you know he’s not resting on any laurels.
Given Hall’s rare appearances in this part of the world, we thought it a good idea to give some local guitarists a chance to ask him a few questions. We thank Michael Anthony, Tony Cesarano, Dan Dowling, Reed Easterwood, John Maestas, Claudio Pérez and Lewis Winn for their participation—and Jim Hall, for his genuine interest, generous responses and startling admission that “the guitar is still hard to play for me.”
Back when you were starting out, most other guitarists played a lot of notes. Tal Farlow called his wall of notes “fanning.” But your style was very different: less notes, but good phrases. How did you come to this style, and who were your early influences?
As we speak, I’m looking at a picture of Tal Farlow and me. A close friend, but completely different musically. I’m also looking at another one of my heroes, Ben Webster. I’m thinking of a few notes but with a lot of emotion, and that was certainly Ben. I allegedly grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I was at the Institute of Music for five years, so I had a lot of other influences. Béla Bartók was my hero. I was exposed to all different kinds of music. Gregorian chants. In fact, I never really had that much fastness in my playing. I just sort of adopted a more melodic style over the years ... I think it’s maybe just a personality thing.
What music, literature or art outside of the typical jazz idiom has been particularly influential?
One of my close friends is [saxophonist] Jane Ira Bloom, and she sent me a record of hers recently that is so unique [Wingwalker on the Outline Music label]. ... I look for something that kind of startles me and gets my attention. That’s kind of what I’m after. I still listen to classical music quite a bit. ... And the guys I surround myself with—like Greg Osby is really unique, and Joey Baron and Steve LaSpina. I gravitate toward people who inspire me and play differently from what I’m doing.
You’ve always been recognized as a musician who listens well. How does a musician go about developing this skill?
Well, part of it’s keeping your job. That’s a help. I guess if you get involved in the whole texture somehow, you find things to do where you fit in.
Can you describe your improvisational concept, and what your concept is on reharmonization and chord substitution?
Chord substitutions, I’m kind of cautious with those. I like to keep the essence of the original composition. ... [The melody] is important. The composer had some kind of emotion or something in mind when he wrote it, so I try to project that feeling.
What place do you think jazz holds in today’s society, and how do feel about the way it is perceived by the public?
I think it’s done pretty well. Because of the way humans are put together, I think there’ll always be people who are searching for some way to express themselves that is a little higher than one or two chords with a heavy back beat. I think it’s here to stay.