By Michael Katz
There is a moment at the Musicians Institute Saturday night when all is stillness. Guitarist Jim Hall has just announced the next tune, “All The Things You Are.” The near capacity house is riveted as Hall plucks the first few chords, his left hand working up and down the frets like a painter dabbing oils on a canvas, the slightest touch altering mood and perception. The only sound other than the near acoustic resonance of Hall’s strumming is the whir of the fans above. The chords start from a near whisper, building into the recognizable Jerome Kern theme, then Hall is joined by his superb quartet, first bassist Steve Laspina countering Hall’s melody and then drummer Joey Baron artfully painting a rhythm on brushes. Finally Greg Osby steps in on alto sax, bobbing and weaving around the main theme, grabbing the audience’s attention and then retreating as Hall’s eloquent patter morphs back into the lead voice.
It is not often that an artist gains such rapt attention from a jazz audience. It helps that the Musician’s Institute stage is acoustically perfect for such an event. Throughout the evening, each note or percussive stroke seems in perfect intonation. Add to that the reverence built in from fellow musicians and students in the audience and the modesty with which Hall reflects that sentiment with his onstage comments. It is all underlined by the cohesiveness of this quartet, by the confidence with which they elegantly build musical stories.
The quartet’s canvas covers everything from blues to standards to free form improvisation. “Furnished Flats,” the opener, is a self-described blues, but an introspective one, like much of Hall’s work. The members have their moments as duos, with Baron responding to Laspina’s bass line with quick brushwork, and later Hall and Osby finding each other’s groove with some unison playing. After “All The Things You Are,” they take up a Brazilian tone for “Bejas Flor,” which Hall describes as “about a hummingbird,” with Osby playing the lead role.
Hall’s take on standards can be tangential, as in “My Funny Valentine,” where we distinguish the opening chords, then listen as he builds free form solos around the melody. It’s almost like watching a Polaroid picture develop in front of your eyes. Baron makes extensive use of hand tapping on the snares– the brushes actually seem like a step up in volume. He is a visual presence as well, artfully touching the cymbals to cut the corners of percussive tones. It is not much of a change in direction when Hall announces a “Free Piece” next, pure improvisation, with each member of the quartet sailing off, yet finding each other at every turn.
You can make a case for any individual number in this rich set as a highlight. There’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” with Hall and Osby accentuating Ellington’s melody with their own sense of longing, followed by a brisk sixteen bar blues. Osby, who has spent much of the evening floating in and out of themes established by Hall, takes center stage in Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” He handles the lead beautifully, with Hall’s chord work underneath lending perfect accompaniment.
They close with Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” and if you have scrolled down from my review the previous night of Michael Wolff’s quartet, (he closed his second set with the same tune) you can sense the fun of two uniquely composed groups making this standard their own. Hall’s playing is energetic, the Caribbean sound punctuated by Laspina’s bass line. Baron works with mallets to produce yet another distinctive sound, Osby darts in and out on his alto, giving his own take on the Rollins melody.
Jim Hall is 80 now and if he doesn’t move around on stage as quickly as before, his fingers seem eternally lithe, his musical innovation unyielding. It is no wonder the Musician’s Institute audience rewards him with a lengthy standing ovation, reluctant to release their embrace until the lights go up.
To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.