One of the things that distinguishes Jim Hall from other jazz guitarists is his originality.
Many guitarists take a lick-based approached to improvisation. Over time they develop a vocabulary of licks – usually gleaned from other players or transcribed from records – and thread them together to create a solo. Some rely heavily on such licks while others will play improvised-on-the-spot melodies perhaps half the time.
Jim Hall does neither. He considers improvising an art form and likens it to painting. As a result he favours motivic development in his solos, meaning that he will improvise a “motive” or musical idea on the spot and then build on it and explore its variations as he develops the solo. The result: a new canvas each time he sits down to play.
In fact he has only transcribed one or two solos in his entire life and that was many years ago. When he listens to other players – often horn players – he does so to get the feeling, not to pick up specific phrases or licks. He’s just as likely to get his musical inspiration from other art forms, especially painting and poetry.
You can hear this approach in this wonderful 1981 recording with Don Thompson(piano) and Terry Clarke(drums):
It’s an understatement to say that Jim Hall, who turns 82 this year, is the most influential jazz guitarist alive today. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Ed Bickert and many others all put him at the top of their list of influences, and many jazzers, regardless of instrument, see him as an iconic figure in modern jazz. Metheny calls him the “father of the modern jazz guitar.”
These accolades are well deserved. Starting in the late 50s Hall played with the very best including Ben Webster, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Desmond, and Art Farmer. His early period includes seminal recordings with Evans (Undercurrent and Intermodulation) and Rollins (The Bridge).
He also has interesting connections with Canada.
When Paul Desmond came to Toronto in the early 70s, Hall recommended that he hire Ed Bickert as his guitarist. Hall had played in Toronto a lot and had gotten to know Bickert well. I’ve never been able to verify this story from a primary source but apparently Hall said to Desmond that Bickert was so good he scared him when he came into the room.
(A side note: the story is believable since Bickert has that kind of reputation amongst guitarists. When I interviewed Pat Metheny for a CBC documentary on him and Linda Manzer, Metheny told me after the interview that he was in complete awe of Bickert and didn’t really understand how he did what he did.)
Carrying on with Hall’s Canadian connections:
He played in a trio with Don Thompson and Terry Clarke and recorded an album with them.
Vancouver (formerly Montreal) guitarist Bill Coon chose studying with Hall over doing a graduate degree.
Mike Rud, another great Canadian guitarist who spent time in Vancouver and Victoria (he’s now in Montreal), also studied with Hall.
There are more connections and more to say but for now I’ll leave you with a recording featuring Hall playing All the Things You Are with Pat Metheny, Chistian McBride and Antonio Sanchez: