Throughout his astounding career, Jim Hall was a quiet giant – an instrumentalist famous for spotless tone and lyrical accessibility, traits that never wavered during 56 years worth of recordings. Yet his inspiration upon successive generations was unparalleled. Two of today’s most established jazz guitar pioneers, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, have cited Hall’s phrasing and deceptively deep improvisational prowess as major inspirations just as Hall has regularly acknowledged his debt to guitar forefathers like Charlie Christian.
Not surprisingly, both Metheny and Frisell have cut duet albums with Hall.
Because Hall’s light, sunny electric guitar sound was so unassuming and so resilient to change, some critics dismissed his music as too safe and predictable. But one of Hall’s many artistic gifts was his ability to compliment and often challenge whatever artist he was teamed with without losing his own musical identity. A great example was his playing on Sonny Rollins’ landmark 1962 album The Bridge, although Hall was a brilliant but unobtrusive presence on recordings by such jazz innovators as Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton and Bill Evans.
It was with Evans that Hall found a true kindred spirit – a musician equally light of touch and tone and equally enamored of the possibilities of improvising within the most familiar of standards and the most deceptively simple of original tunes. The 2002 remastered Blue Note edition of the 1963 duo album Undercurrents is a gorgeous document of their simpatico. Though the timbre of the piano and guitar are obviously different, it is often difficult to tell which player begins and end the album’s many bits of fascinating dialogue.
Hall died yesterday, just over one week after his 83rd birthday. He was performing as recently as last month.
I got to see him play one time on a mercilessly cold January evening at the Blue Note in New York. He was performing duets with bassist Charlie Haden. That night, Haden made all kinds of remarks about the savage chill outside. Hall paid it no mind. When he put his fingers to the guitar for a quietly regal version of How Deep is the Ocean, it was impossible not to feel warm and at home.