Jazz guitarist whose playing was marked by finesse and invention
Obituary Jim Hall
Jim Hall, the jazz guitarist, who has died aged 83, had a restrained, elegant style, rich in subtlety and nuance and expressed through the amplifier in a sound both mellow and carefully modulated. With his bald head, horn-rimmed spectacles and studious manner, he presented a somewhat professorial figure on stage.
During his long career Hall played with most of the leading jazz figures of his time, notably Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins. His recorded duets with Evans are gems of finesse and invention; Rollins's boldness he underpinned with constantly shifting rhythms and textures. Over more than half a century of recording, in whatever line up, he succeeded in maintaining an unwaveringly high standard.
James Stanley Hall was born in Buffalo, New York, on December 4 1930. He described his family as "hillbilly WASPs from around Ohio and the Great Lakes".
A publicist once claimed that he came from a musical family, his mother being a pianist, an uncle a guitarist and his grandfather a conductor -- which was strictly true: "My mom played a horrible kind of church piano, my uncle Ed played country music and drank himself to death, and my grandfather was a conductor -- on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad." His father left the family when Hall was seven years old.
The direction of his life was set at the age of 13, when he heard Charlie Christian, the pioneer of the electric guitar in jazz, on the radio. "I realised then that this was my calling. I didn't even know for sure what it was he was doing, but it sounded so amazing I wanted to do that." After learning guitar, he attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he took his Bachelor's degree in piano and composition, there being no jazz or guitar tuition available. "I thought I was going into classical composing and teach on the side. Then, halfway through my first semester towards my Master's degree I knew I had to try being a guitarist, or else it would trouble me for the rest of my life."
He left college and headed for Los Angeles, where he had heard there was a growing jazz scene. Later that year, 1955, he joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with which he made his first recording. The following year he joined the Jimmy Guiffré Three, quite an advanced band for its time, which scored an unexpected hit in the film Jazz On A Summer's Day (1960) with a strangely hypnotic piece called 'The Train and the River'.
In 1960, he toured Europe and South America with the band accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. He found South American music such an "ear-opening experience", especially the Argentine tango and the emerging bossa-nova in Brazil, that he stayed on for several weeks after the final concert, simply to hear more.
The early 1960s saw Hall establish his reputation as a leading jazz figure. A remarkable number of the albums from that period on which he appears have long been regarded as classics. They include Undercurrent (1962), his first set of duets with Bill Evans; Interplay (1962), with Evans and a quintet featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; Interaction (1962) and Live at the Half Note (1963) with the Art Farmer Quartet; two with Sonny Rollins, The Bridge and What's New? (1962); and several with Paul Desmond, including Bossa Antigua (1964).
Being chosen to play with Rollins, he said later, meant that he "felt fully accepted by the jazz community". Every notable jazz musician in New York came to listen to him, "and that was because of Sonny".
Hall married, Jane, a psychoanalyst, in 1965 and, seeking a more settled existence, applied for a teaching post at Berklee School of Music, Boston, the leading jazz school in America. "I assumed that, having worked with Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald, I'd be offered the job, but I didn't get hired." Instead he took a job with the house band of the Merv Griffin Show on NBC television, where he stayed for three years.
Many of Hall's closest musical partnerships were with bass players, and the most intense of those was probably that with Ron Carter. It was based on a degree of mutual respect which demanded complete equality. With Ron, said Hall, you couldn't stipulate anything without feeling "like you should go through his secretary or his manager first".
Their first duet recording, Alone Together (1972), is a remarkable example of that rare kind of musical telepathy which sometimes occurs between two equally matched improvisers.
He always strove to cultivate a similar closeness in his own trios, members of which, such as bassists Don Thompson and Steve LaSpina, remained with him for long periods: "Technically I was the leader, but they really knew what to do."
Unlike many guitarists, Hall was no guitar buff with a vast array of instruments and equipment. "I know it's a guitar when I see it, and that's about it," he said once. Neither was he impressed by sheer dexterity, and remarked that he'd rather hear BB King play three notes than listen to an hour of the latest hot-shot guitar wizard, because "there's something about BB's intelligence".
Among younger guitarists he admired were Pat Metheny, with whom he made a duet album in 1998, Bill Frissell ("I can never guess what he'll do next") and Britain's Fred Frith ("really nutty").
In 1998 Hall won the Jazzpar Prize, awarded annually in Denmark by an international committee, and regarded as the Oscar of the jazz world. Currently in abeyance for lack of a sponsor, the Jazzpar was the only jazz award involving a substantial sum of money -- 200,000 Danish Krone, then worth about £20,000.
His concert following the award ceremony included the Zaploski Quartet playing 'Thesis', a classical composition from early in his career, and a set of pieces for combined jazz and string quartets.
Berklee awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2005 ("I thought about saying, 'Where were you when I needed you?'") and in 2007 he was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Although gratified by these and other honours, his attitude remained typically quizzical and low-key: "I'll be doing an interview about it on the telephone, and the guitar sits there in the corner and says, 'Yeah, big deal! Try to tune me today!' It's a mystery."
Jim Hall is survived by his wife and daughter.