"I knew I had to try to be a jazz guitarist, or it would bother me the rest of my life," he says. "I used to play guitar on the weekends, but initially I wasn't all that involved in jazz. I thought I was going into classical composing and teaching."
In his quest to become a jazz player of some magnitude, Hall went to Los Angeles in 1955 and became a charter member of the Chico Hamilton quintet, a chamber jazz group. Hamilton's outfit became popular almost immediately, and Hall gained recognition with it. At that time, the influence of Charlie Christian was apparent in his playing, but Hall developed his own variant on Christian's approach. His work was melodic and economical, and he had a compositional approach to soloing, rather than stringing together licks and going from one phrase to the next. Hall saw his solos as a whole and employed an overarching method of constructing them, in which pacing was an important ingredient. He talks of "seeing the shape" of solos in his mind's eye, citing the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young as a precursor.
"Clarity is the thing I'm after," Hall explains. "I want a picture in my mind of the way a solo looks as I'm playing it. That way I can keep from being boring."
Hamilton's group, which contained a flute and cello, appealed to people who weren't primarily jazz fans, because its music was quiet and pleasant. Occasionally, though, it could be pretty adventurous. "Free Form," a song on Hamilton's first album, was one of the first free-jazz pieces ever recorded; it didn't have a preset chord progression. And yet Hall's playing on it is still coherent. He plays complex, finger-busting phrases, and while he's never been known for his technical prowess, his chops are much better than most jazz fans realize.
After leaving Hamilton, Hall went on to perform as a sideman in the late '50s and early '60s with artists such as Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, and Paul Desmond. During that time, his playing became increasingly advanced harmonically and rhythmically, while he continued to play with lucidity and economy. By 1965 Hall was considered a master, and he continues to be regarded as one.
Perhaps Hall's greatest recorded achievements have been the series of CDs he cut for the Cleveland-based Telarc Company. Telarc's policy is to hire big-name, elderly jazz artists such as Joe Williams, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and George Shearing. By and large, its efforts have been good, but certainly not daring. On the other hand, Hall has looked upon every Telarc CD as a fresh challenge, and his work for the label has been consistently stimulating. "The company's been great to me," he says. "Once they realized that I had a pretty good grasp of production, they let me do pretty much anything I wanted to."
On the Telarc albums, Hall consistently pushes himself, doing free-jazz performances, using harmonics, employing overdubbing, and playing acoustic guitar and electric guitar with attachments. He previously shunned using this auxiliary equipment, but on Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival, a 1999 album he did with composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer, he embraced special effects. "Brookmeyer had me use wa-wa and distortion pedals and a chorus," he says. "I find that, if you employ them tastefully, it can help a lot."
What's also noticeable on the Telarc CDs is that Hall's playing has become increasingly subtle and nuanced, and he's developed a great touch on guitar, which helps make it sing. The initial CD in the series, Dedications and Inspirations, is an unaccompanied solo disc. On it he's dedicated the performances to various artists, including cartoonist Gary Larson, painters Monet, Miro, and Matisse, and tenor saxmen Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. "[Rollins] had a way of taking a tune apart and putting it together right in front of your eyes," he says. "His loose, adventuresome way of playing influenced my playing."
On Dialogues he plays with a series of guest artists, including outstanding younger guitarists Bill Frisell, whose playing he influenced, and Mike Stern, flugelhornist Tom Harrell, accordionist Gil Goldstein, and tenor saxman Joe Lovano, another great Cleveland jazzman. Hall's next CD for Telarc, 1997's Textures, came as quite a surprise, since it featured his composing and arranging for various sized groups, including a couple of large ones with strings included. Hall's compositional ability had not been featured prior to this, but the CD was overdue. After all, his works are very solidly crafted and influenced by 20th-century classical writing, and he's cited Bartók as a major influence.
Most recently, Hall released a CD with an all-star group, Grand Slam, that features Lovano, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Lewis Nash. It's a fine effort by a working quartet with a varied and growing repertoire. For the art museum gig, he'll be appearing with his own quartet and a string quartet on some selections (he's dubbed the pairing of the quartets "Four + Four").
"Some of us [older] musicians seem to be leading, while the younger guys [the so-called 'young lions'] are playing bebop," says Hall, who's always pushing himself, constantly trying to improve and become creative in different areas.
"That's the way the arts are supposed to be," he says. Certainly his career backs him up.