Sunday, July 16, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 026: Jim Hall and Ron Carter: Alone Together

The essence of jazz playing is communication. There’s no doubt that great solo playing is exhilarating, both for player and listener, and that soloing can allow the player a huge degree of flexibility. But solo playing is unavoidably a soliloquy: as listeners we’re basically being given a look-in to somebody’s else thinking.

For jazz to really work as it always has, there needs to be a feedback loop: between player and listener, but ideally between multiple players and the audience. In jazz ensemble playing, the exhilaration really comes when the players themselves are communicating and discovering together.

This is some of the greatest jazz duo playing I’ve ever heard, and certainly some of the best Jim Hall. I’ve never been a huge Ron Carter fan—though he worked well in the 2nd Miles Quintet—but he sure sounds good here. Hall and Carter have done a series of duo recordings, but this is the first live one (from ’72) and it’s magnificent. The sound is kind of dated (and the guitar is kind of noisy) but on this record you can hear, more clearly than anywhere else, just how and why Jim Hall was always cited as a prime influence by Metheny, Mick Goodrick, and Scofield. Although the superchops players (Tal Farlow, Joe Pass, Pat Martino) are often cited by young guitarists as their models, there’s another approach to the instrument—legato, spacious, and horn-like—that’s ultimately proven more influential: Hall (like Wes) falls into this category.

He plays very quietly, on a small-bodied guitar with relatively light strings, and much of the sound we hear is actually a combination of the pickup sound and the acoustics of the instrument. He also plays with an incredible legato: although he doesn’t describe himself as a technician, there’s a beautiful flow and logic to his lines. Much of this can be traced to his studies in composition (at Cleveland) and his work with numerous composition-oriented players, Jimmy Giuffre being principle among them.

Probably the single greatest influence on his linear approach, though, I think is Sonny Rollins, with whom he gigged and recorded. Sonny is of course the greatest living jazz improviser (I know it seems foolish, hyperbolic, and ridiculous to say “of course”, but really there’s general agreement in the jazz community that there’s no one to touch him)—the kind of player who can present a two-hour concert of unaccompanied saxophone improvisations—and so he’s a great model for a guitarist. As a ‘comper, Hall is strongly influenced by Bill Evans, with whom he did a series of gigs and a great duo disc called Intermodulation. From Evans, Hall gets a gentle touch, an advanced harmonic/modal sense, and a wonderful ability to structure improvisational forms.

Both sides of Hall come together in this live set from 1972. Though it’s noisy (cash registers and drinks rattling), it does capture the astonishing breadth and depth of sound these two were capable of. The program is excellent, emphasizing the blues and standards which have been the backbone of straight-ahead jazz playing since the ‘30s, and they find amazing spaces. It’s a study in textural contrast: counterpoint, grooves, lush harmony, call-and-response, flow.

I went to school on this record. I was working at the old Guitar Workshop of Boston: for a short time, a fantastic place where a student enrolling in one 16-week evening class could sit in on as many others as s/he wished. Having moved back from Texas, I used that premise to give myself a decent basic music education when I hadn’t had one. I sat in on classes with Dharmonia, Mike Bierylo, Larry “Guitar” Baeder, the fantastic flatpicker Dean Magraw, and Little Mikey Bevan. It was Mikey who gave me a photocopy from the Real Book and this recording and told me to check out St. Thomas.

It’s a Sonny Rollins calypso, a simple 16-bar tune with straightforward changes, but what Carter and Hall do with this is incredible. For much of the tune, after the head, it’s actually Carter soloing and Hall ‘comping. He turns the guitar way down and sinks deep into the groove, and it’s amazing—thoughtful, compositional, voice-led, motivically-involved, spinning out logically for chorus after chorus. On his solos, what I mostly hear is Hall’s freedom from preconceptions: preconceptions about the guitar’s role, about the kinds of lines to play, about the balance between complexity and simplicity. And that’s another thumbprint of Hall’s playing: that throughout his whole career, whatever kind of music he’s been playing, with whatever musicians and in whatever situations, his playing sounds simple. Not “simple” in the sense of simplistic, but simple with a sense of logic, control, relaxation, and most importantly inevitability. You listen to Hall play St. Thomas, and you think, “Of course—why didn’t I think of that?”

It's that quality of clarity, logic, and free-flowing imagination that makes Hall one of the great jazz soloists. I'd put him right up there with Sonny--and fortunately, these two grand old men are both still with us.

1 comment:

RMVela said...

You hipped me to this recording last year (?), maybe in 2004? Dunno when, but you are SO right, the interaction between Carter & Hall is the good stuff. I'm gonna go take a listen now.