In 1971, Bill Frisell, then 19, came to New York for a couple of months and took a mere eight guitar lessons from the legendary jazz guitarist Jim Hall.
Thirty years later, Frisell is still learning from that experience.
"It feels like he's still my teacher," said the acclaimed avant-jazz guitarist from Seattle. "There's so much that I got out of those eight lessons that I still haven't begun to touch. I could spend the rest of my life just scratching the surface."
Friday through Sunday (March 31April 2), the San Francisco Jazz Organization presents a series of concerts and events dedicated to the guitar, with a focus on the life and work of guitar master Hall, 69. The weekend is part of the organization's inaugural spring season "Traditions in Transition," which opened March 17 and is being directed by saxophonist Joshua Redman.
In addition to a performance by guitar great Pat Metheny, the program features a screening of Bruce Ricker's documentary Jim Hall: A Life in Progress, which Hall will co-host, as well as a solo concert by the Jim Hall Trio.
The weekend culminates in an all-star event where Hall will perform with guitarists John Abercrombie, Peter Bernstein, Russell Malone and Frisell, all of whom regardless of stylistic differences cite the elder musician as an important influence.
Hall said his greatest influence as a young guitarist was early jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian, whom he first discovered on a Benny Goodman recording.
"I still remember the tune," Hall said from his home in New York. "It was called 'Grand Slam.' And I call it my spiritual awakening. I wasn't even sure what he was doing, but I knew I wanted to do it."
Hall took a somewhat unusual route to becoming a jazz musician, studying music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music and starting a master's degree program in composition, during which he wrote a string quartet and several 12-tone works.
Determined to try his luck as a professional guitarist, he dropped out of school in the early 1950s and headed to Los Angeles, where he quickly found work with drummer Chico Hamilton. Hall's sensitive and subtle artistry made him a fast favorite among musicians; in the 1960s, he toured with singer Ella Fitzgerald, was a member of saxophonist Sonny Rollins' quartet and co-led a quartet with trumpeter Art Farmer.
Inspiration To Younger Musicians
While appearing on more than 200 recordings as a sideman, Hall has led groups consistently since the 1970s. Among the 30-plus albums he has to his credit are an acclaimed duet recording with pianist Bill Evans and several discs of his own harmonically advanced yet melodically accessible compositions, many of which are featured on his recent CD with Metheny, Jim Hall & Pat Metheny.
Hall's technical mastery, evident on the tune "My Heart Sings (All of a Sudden)" (RealAudio excerpt) from his 1992 album Circles, has been an enormous inspiration to younger musicians such as Metheny and Frisell. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the development of the jazz guitar has been his continuing investigation and expansion of what the instrument can do.
"He really changed the way the guitar functions in music and the role it can play," Frisell said. "He didn't just use the history of the guitar, which wasn't that much when he started; he used the history of music, all kinds of music, and he filtered it through the guitar."
When asked about the scope of his own influence, Hall responded in typically self-effacing fashion.
"Maybe it's because I see it as a challenge every day," he said. "I think I would be out of music if I were still playing the way I did in the '60s not that it was terrible, but I just want to keep growing. So maybe that's the influence I've had: not so much from a technical standpoint, but just maybe a spirit or an attitude toward being a musician."
And while he turns 70 this year, Hall said he has no plans to retire.
"I hope music isn't something that you retire from," he said. "I like to think I'm getting deeper into the music."