Of course, today it’s possible that he is suffering by comparison to the musician next to him. Pat Metheny is not only a guitarist who likes to prove his chops by fluttering all over the musical map, but one who never met a loud amp he didn’t like. In person, the two men are a study in contrast: Hall an elder statesman at 68 years of age, Metheny still a respectful youngster at 44.
To the collective delight of jazz fans around the world, the pair have released a long-awaited CD of duets this month, and it proves them remarkable aural complements. Titled simply Jim Hall and Pat Metheny, the disc features Hall’s characteristically quiet, buttery pickwork set against Metheny’s surprisingly deferential strumming.
When you record a guitarists’ duet album, Hall says, “A little red light goes off. . . . It can sound like ‘two guitars,’ in quotes. It depends on the individuals, but it often sounds like, ‘This guy plays great but the other guy plays slow.’ But with Pat and me it became music.”
Early reviews agree. One Australian critic noted of the album, which mixes live and in-studio sessions, “When it is live, Hall is on the left channel and Metheny on the right . . . but the way these two spin lines that move in and out of each other seems to make that point academic.” A critic for The Buffalo News, in Hall’s hometown (though he grew up in Cleveland), raves that the album is “a guitar match made in a suburb of heaven.”
The new album contains 17 tracks of largely familiar material (the originals written mainly by Hall), but to call any of the pieces standards would be to diminish what the two players do with them. In George Gershwin’s Summertime, Metheny musters a vigorous, almost frenzied chorded backdrop, over which Hall seems not merely to play but to exorcise an ethereal rendition of the melody from his Gibson. Five brief improv numbers dot the album — distinct, challenging palate cleansers that were recorded without any premeditation by the two players.
Hall traces the disc’s roots to four concerts he and Metheny did in France in 1991. “We had almost no time to rehearse and Pat said, ‘Why don’t we just go out and play and see what happens,’ ” he recalls. “I noticed we were able to play particularly easily together and just trusted one another.”
The two first met in 1970, when the 15-year-old Metheny was already making waves as a musical prodigy. He wasn’t even out of his teens before he was teaching at the University of Miami and Berklee College of Music. With his Pat Metheny Group, he hopscotched onto all the charts that would have him, penning soundtracks for films like The Falcon and the Snowman (most recently, he’s scored the coming A Map of the World starring Sigourney Weaver), happily playing Brazilian samba, free jazz and even country music.
Through it all, Metheny frequently pointed to Hall as an influence, even while quickly outstripping his hero in record sales. In recent years Metheny has made it a point to pay homage to his idols by recording with many of them, including Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and, most recently, Charlie Haden. Hall is in good company. “It’s a real honour to share this record,” says Metheny. “It’s not an overstatement to say Jim is a father of modern jazz guitar.
“Jim made such a fantastic contribution to the way the instrument could be conceived and played. He quietly opened a door in the late fifties and early sixties with his amazing innovations that have allowed players of my generation like myself, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, to go through.”
Hall knows he’s a critic’s favourite — “Sorry to hear that,” he jokes. He’s unassuming in person, a cordial gentleman who still practises for hours a day. At an age when many musicians contemplate retirement, Hall is stepping up his creative output. He signed on with Telarc in 1994, and has since produced six albums for the label, including 1997’s Textures, which won a prize from the Danish JazzPar Project. The same year, the New York Jazz Critics Circle awarded him best composer and arranger honours. He is so busy with recording and playing, in fact, that he has had to take a break from the New School in Greenwich Village, where he’d been teaching for many years.
Hall began his career with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, moving on to Jimmy Giuffre’s Three in the late 1950s, which led to his recording debut as a band leader in 1957. Sessions with Ben Webster, Bill Evans and Ella Fitzgerald followed, and then others with Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer.
The mid-1970s found Hall in the company of Canadians Terry Clarke and Don Thompson, a performing and recording arrangement that continued for a number of years under the name the Jim Hall Trio. The guitarist’s ties to Canada have always been strong, and in the late 1980s he even considered moving north from his long-time home in New York City, in disgust over the election of George Bush.
Hall is still disturbed by the U.S. government’s gutting of funding for high-school music education, a move made during the Reagan years. “I think the arts should be supported. I picture in a few thousand years archeologists are going to find these factories and tanks and guns and no culture. If you don’t have A-R-T in a society, what’s it about? You have nothing.”
And the American jazz scene is undergoing rapid change. Even 10 years ago, Metheny notes, it would have been possible for him to put together a 200-date tour in the U.S., but now he considers that impossible, though he could easily do two months of gigs in Italy, and Japan always provides enormous support for American musicians. (Metheny is touring with his Pat Metheny Trio this summer, including six dates from Victoria to Winnipeg in the last week of June. No concert plans for the Hall-Metheny duo have been announced.)
“We lost a lot of our public when jazz stopped being dance music. We played for dancers, then rock sort of took the dancers away, and it became an art form,” reflects Hall. “That’s too bad, but I’m very lucky because I’m still able to make a living.” He couldn’t talk much longer, though, because a one-month British tour was fast approaching. He had to get home and practise.