Jim Hall Interview: Julian Lage Is The New Jazz Guitar Guard

By: Marcos Rios

In my early development as a guitarist, I had aspirations to play as well as Jim Hall one day. Jim Hall and Ron Carter’s Alone Together is one of the main records that inspired me to learn how to play jazz guitar, and his melodic inventiveness maintains my attention even until this day. I saw him perform at the National Guitar Workshop this past summer, and his playing did not cease to surprise me.

In this interview with one of the most influential jazz guitarists alive today, we discuss his duet recording with Ron Carter as well as many other things. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

Jim Hall

Jim Hall

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Marcos Rios: I am a big fan of your duet recordings. One of my favorite ones is Alone Together. How was it to play with Ron Carter in that setting? And did you need to adjust your playing?

Jim Hall: It was in a club, I believe live?

Marcos: Yes, it was live.

Jim Hall: Well it is always great to play with Ron. We have this…that without even saying it we listen to each other very closely, and I listen to his bass notes and kind of figure out my chord voicings and stuff like that according to what he is playing. It is just delightful, and I’ve known Ron for a long long time.

We did another duet thing about a month ago, just one night at the Blue Note, and that was fun too. He is marvelous to play with.

Marcos: How did playing with Ron Carter recently at the Blue Note compare to those earlier recordings?

Jim Hall: Well I guess we both have had different experiences in the mean time, so that’s added stuff. We just did this one night at the Blue Note, and there was no preparation time really because Ron was traveling almost the whole day before. But I think we got together just for a few minutes at the Blue Note ahead of time and we were able to connect. The first set was a little rough because we couldn’t get the sound right but by the second set I think we were back in the old groove again. It is just really a matter of listening and reacting; Ron does that beautifully. We tend to listen to each other very well and react to whatever we hear, and somehow that seems to be the secret, I guess.

Marcos: I have noticed that you have been involved in a few online projects. What is your relationship with the website ArtistShare.com?

Jim Hall: Well, you met him; he was with me, Brian Camelio. He started that record company ArtistShare. Brian is also a good musician, the guy that put the website together. He is a very good guitar player himself. I’ve known him because he came for guitar

Bill Frisell in his home studio

Bill Frisell in his home studio, Photo: Wikipedia (Monica Frisell)

lessons years and years ago, so I can pretty much do what I want. I did a double CD with Bill Frissell. A pack of one CD with just Bill and me with two guitars and the second CD is Joey Baron on drums and Scott Colley on Bass. I am pretty much free to do whatever I want, and it has worked out really well. They put out these great looking records, and they sound good and everything. I am not sure how the sells are going, but it’s nice because he is a close friend and also runs the record company.

Marcos: Can you tell me about those duet recordings that were released a year ago? The ones you just mentioned with Bill Frissel and Joey Baron?

Jim Hall: Bill Frissel and I started on the duet stuff, and we did it at this guy’s apartment, Tony Sher. He was the engineer, and we did it in his apartment in Brooklyn. We went back several times, and in the in-between time I had to have this back surgery, which got in the way of all that. After we heard what we had done we liked it, what Bill and I did, but we thought maybe it needed something extra. So then we added, I don’t know, a couple of years later I guess we added the quartet stuff with Joey Baron and Scott Colley.

I’ve known Bill Frissel… I think he came for lesson when he was about 15 years old or something, so I have known him for a long time. We’ve been playing a lot together, a lot of the things in Europe. We do concerts together and sometimes we record that, and sometimes we do duets. We play quite differently, but Bill also listens very carefully, and he has lots of effects that he can add to it like foot pedals and stuff like that. I just play straight guitar whenever I play with him; he does all the other stuff.

Marcos: Can you tell me about recording Conversation with you and Joey Baron?

Jim Hall: Joey is another one. I was just looking at a record I did 25 years ago called These Rooms, and Joey was on it and so was Steve LaSpina. I have been playing with Joey Baron for years and for quite a while now he has been living in Europe. He lives in Berlin, so we don’t get together as much, but Joey is just marvelous. I wasn’t sure that it would work just guitar and drums and percussion, but Joey was really inventive. He would say, “Well, why don’t we try this. Why don’t I just start with the cymbal and then you tune in?” So it is all kinda free improvisation and sometimes we play a tune. I think we may have “Bag’s Groove” with something like that just to sort of build on. It was really a lot of fun.

Then my wife… We have a next door neighbor, and their daughter, well she is 16 now but she was about 14 I guess, came to the record date and wrote a poem that’s about the idea of a duets record, and that is included in the CD as well. I mean you can pull it out of the packet of the CD. Brian Camelio, who has ArtistShare, is really inventive with that sort of stuff, and it was fun working with Joey. He is really marvelous.

Marcos: A record I was listening the other day was actually These Rooms with Tom Harrel. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Jim Hall: I just found that, and it was kind of buried in the apartment here. That was a lot of fun too. Same thing about Tommy Harrel; I always loved Tommy’s playing, and I had heard him, not a lot but I heard him with big bands and stuff in New York City. I thought it would be great, and Herb Wong was the man who produced that record. A lot of that was Herb’s idea. He decided to get Tommy Harrel, so I had Joey and Steve LaSpina. Actually, Steve and Joey and I worked together now with Greg Osby, the alto player in the quartet. These Rooms was kind of predated to all this stuff, but it was also fun and Tommy Harrel just plays beautifully.

Marcos: What are your thoughts on Canadian guitar player Ed Bickert?

Jim Hall: I’ve known Ed for years because I used to play Toronto quite a bit, and I got to know Ed and his whole family. I know his wife died quite a while ago. One of his sons was over here not too long ago. I can’t think of his name right now, but he lives in Europe now. He was doing a book or something about Ed. I remember going to jam sessions years ago with two guitars, Ed Bickert on guitar and Don Thompson on bass and [drummer] Terry Clarke, three great Canadian musicians.

Jim Hall at the Iridium

Jim Hall at the Iridium

I played some things with Paul Desmond and did some records after he left the Brubeck quartet. Paul was going to go to Canada to work so I recommended Ed Bickert. I said, “You have to hear him.” He got Don Thompson playing bass and I forget who the drummer was and Ed Bickert playing guitar, so Paul taped a lot of the stuff. When he came back, he was just raving about Ed Bickert. I have known Ed for a long, long time. He is a marvelous player and great guy.

Marcos: What are some of your new favorite players?

Jim Hall: He is a kid, really. He just turned 22 years old: Julian Lage. He works with the Gary Burton Quartet, but in the last year and a half or so he has been working with his own groups. I met him in Berkeley, California when he was about 11 years old. He came in the club with his family, and I heard him because he came back in the dressing room and played my guitar. He was somewhat… I won’t say genius, but he was a very precocious kid. He is just 22 and he teaches up at Berklee School up in Boston. He also has an apartment in New York, so we are in touch by telephone anyway. Yeah, he is really good, incredible player.

Marcos: I was watching a few videos of you on YouTube and I noticed you were playing with some pedals. What led you to play with pedals?

Jim Hall: I did own some, but I actually avoided foot pedals for years. Bob Brookmeyer wrote a piece for orchestra that was done in Europe, and he had me use a foot pedal on that. I try not to, because you can get kinda hooked on those things. If you get in trouble, you just press the foot pedal and it helps. I do use them now, and I try to not overuse them like drugs or something like that.

Marcos: Did Bill Frissel’s playing influence you using pedals?

Jim Hall: In a way, I think, but what I do with Bill is not use pedals because I figure he has all those things covered. I think if I started fooling around and he was too, I don’t know, it would be overkill. I heard Bill in trios with Paul Motion on drums and Joe Lovano on saxophone, and Bill was using foot pedals. It just sounded perfect, and it filled out the whole texture perfectly. But I figure I don’t even have to take my foot pedals if I am working with Bill because he has all that covered.

Marcos: I was checking your book Exploring Jazz Guitar, and I found it very interesting that in your tunes and in the clinic I attended a few weeks ago, you would divide the tunes into a pitch class collection of intervals like a composer analyzing music, and you would use it to improvise. How did you think of this? Was that the influence you acquired while studying in Cleveland? Did you find this innately or did analyzing classical composers bring you to this?

Jim Hall: I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for five years. When I first went in, I knew nothing about classical music, but I got really interested in Bela Bartok and even wrote some pieces. We did a lot of taking music apart and looking at the intervals and how a composer would develop things that makes sense. Is that the kind of thing you mean?

Marcos: Yes, that is what I meant. Then you applied those concepts in improvisational techniques?

Jim Hall: Yeah I am sure it kind of went that way. Almost unconsciously, I started looking at improvisation that way, in taking a motive or an interval and developing it, rather than just playing any notes as fast as you can for 32 bars and then stopping. I also try to make my solos feel like compositions too.

Marcos: If you were to teach a lesson, would you teach it like that and have them develop the motive as much as possible?

Jim Hall: I think that is one thing that I do with students. I don’t really teach now, but I had a couple of students who had great chops on the guitar, fantastic technique. So sometimes, I would just ask them to play on one string to see how that would work or just take these two notes and develop them through all these chord changes. Make that a motive you develop just like you were building a bridge of rocks out of or something, and you don’t want it to fall down, so you make sure it is held together logically. I imagine something like that.

Marcos: Can you tell me a little about your guitars?

Jim Hall: Right now I use guitars made by a man named Roger Sadowsky. He has a shop in Brooklyn. For years, I used a guitar made by Jimmy D’Aquisto, then Jimmy died and they are really precious guitars. Roger Sadowsky made this guitar for me, and it has my name on it. He made it feel like the D’Aquisto. It has a great acoustic sound and also a pick up on it, and if anything goes wrong, he can come get my guitar and fix it and bring it back to me from Brooklyn the next day, so I feel very good about that.

It is getting very difficult traveling on airplanes with musical instruments now. A lot of bass players don’t even take a bass with them if they have to travel by plane. They make arrangements to borrow one from somebody or rent one because it is too complicated and it costs a lot of money to take a bass on an airplane. So with the guitars, it is sort of similar. A couple of times I have had that the guitar not show up on the day of the concert, so I would have to borrow an instrument in Egypt or someplace. So anyway, I use the Roger Sadowsky guitar; it has a nice acoustic sound, and the neck feels great while practicing.

Marcos: What do you think is missing in most young players’ playing?

Jim Hall: Most of the young players I have heard are pretty fantastic, especially Julian, but I would imagine it really doesn’t change that much for me. I just turned 80, so the same things I have been working on now are the same things I was working on mentally when I was a teenager. First of all, I have to keep my hand warmed up at the guitar everyday, but for most of the players I have heard who are younger than I am, I get something out of their playing. I really enjoy it. There is a marvelous lady guitar player named Sheryl Bailey. She plays great. I don’t get to hear many other guitar players actually. If I listen to records, I usually listen to classical music or something like that.

I am pretty much in my own world, but one thing that kinda bothers me is that amplifiers are so damn loud now that it seems like a mistake to me. I went to hear a concert of a guy who is a good guitar player and a teacher of friend of mine. I went to this concert, and the music was so loud it was incredible. So I sat there and I pretended I was concentrating, and I had my fingers stuck in my ears ’cause it was dangerously loud. The volume, I don’t understand because it gives you no place to go. So I kind of play at a minimum volume, but I actually use the amplifier to play softer ’cause I feel I can get a good tone and still project without banging the strings real loud. It gives you some chance to play louder if you want to. I think the only thing that kinda bothers me now is the volume of the amp, but I think there are some marvelous young players around. I am impressed with all of them.

Marcos: I recently saw a clinic with Christian McBride, and he was comparing a few guitarists and his experience performing with them. He described playing with you and said that you play with a quiet intensity. Why do you prefer playing quieter?

Jim Hall: I guess because it gives you someplace to go. If you hit the string harder and louder it has some meaning, but if everything was loud and fast it gets more active. I guess it goes back to composition again. If Beethoven wrote “Fortissimo” for the whole 5th Symphony, it would be boring by the fourth bar. I guess it goes back to composition and keeping things interesting. If it is loud all the time it takes a whole dimension out of the possibilities of using different volumes to create introspect. That’s a good question, I have to practice answering that.

Marcos: What have you been practicing recently?

Jim Hall: One thing I do to keep my interest… I don’t have a lot guitars, but I usually have to, so sometimes I would take one guitar and tune it randomly, just to switch the intervals between the strings. Then I would practice on that, and I’ll see what I can make of whatever comes out. For instance, on my regular guitar if I play across the D string to the G string, that interval is a fourth. If I have the guitar tuned differently, then it comes out a third or a diminished fifth or something, so then I have to compose something on the spot. I do that a lot to keep my fingers on the guitar and keep it interesting for myself.

Marcos: Do you any future projects?

Jim Hall: I will doing be something for ArtistShare. I am not positive what it will be yet. I think I mentioned it to Brian Camelio that I would like to do some string writing probably with a string quartet and jazz guitar, but that is a good question because I was looking at blank score paper. I want to do some more writing probably for strings and guitar something like that. I love Greg Osby’s playing and improvising, so maybe I will include Greg. I don’t really know, but I have a feeling that it will be some more string writing.

3 Comments

  1. Mishell (8 years ago)

    Hey check out an amazing interview of one of Jim Hall’s inspirations, Ron Carter at: http://culturecatch.com/vidcast/ron-carter

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