Even in a good year, jazz loses some great musicians. But, in 2014, the deaths of bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Jim Hall stung more than most. Hall and Haden were not only eloquent and influential masters but also musicians who spoke with a quiet assurance. They were revolutionaries who didn’t ruffle feathers, perhaps. It seemed like they’d be around forever, quietly knocking us out.
What a gift, then, to find this quiet and loving duet concert from the 1990 Montreal International Jazz Festival pairing Hall and Haden in duets on eight good tunes. “Skylark” and “Body and Soul” are just the kind of harmonically complex ballads they excelled on, Ornette’s “Turnaround” is the perfect blues for them, and “Bemsha Swing” by Monk is always good — but great in the hands of masters. Two originals each, including Haden’s touching “First Song”, round out the show.
For me, “First Song” sounds like an elegy on a normal day, so hearing it played by Haden and Hall, together and in the wake of their passing, makes it special. Not that they play it with anything less than a buoyant life. But Hall outlines the tender melody on his own before Haden comes in playing a full counterpoint that accentuates gripping descent of the harmonies. In his insightful liner notes for this release, Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson notes that has “a kind of minor-key ‘classical’ feel” and that Haden’s playing here demonstrates “independent bass counterpoint connected just as much to Bach as to traditional jazz.” I can’t say it any better — and it gives this performance a timeless quality. It feels to me like the very best version of “First Song” there is, which is reason enough to put Charlie Haden – Jim Hall on your must-listen list.
My second favorite thing here is a rendition of “Skylark” that takes its beautiful time. It is certainly a feature for Hall, with his astonishing unaccompanied first chorus utilizing shifting keys and ringing harmonics. Hall was the kind of virtuoso where he didn’t stick your nose in it (unlike say, Joe Pass), but any actual attention to this performance makes you wonder how does he do that? When Haden enters, Hall simply gets better, letting his tone ring out more. The fact that these are both acoustic string instruments comes through here beautifully. Haden solos in a stately manner, and then Hall plays a fully chorded improvisation before returning to the bridge.
Maybe the most fun thing here is Haden’s simple but abstract theme “In the Moment”. Haden walks to at a quick clip, but the on Hall’s solo he immediately goes to a cut time and wanders in and out of tempo, in and out of consonant harmony, and forward and back to straight 4/4. While we’re all used to Haden being a part of some more “avant grade” sessions over the years, Hall is no slouch when things open up, and it’s great to hear him respond not only with exploratory melody but also with interesting strummed textures. By the middle of the improvisations, we’re in territory that could have been played by Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump rather than Jim Hall and Charlie Haden — which I hope is a cool complement for all four musicians. Haden growls and snarls as he bows his bass, Hall finds chords that only exist on acid, and then — miraculously — they are in the same space and then bringing you back home again.
Not everything in the concert is an A+ for me. Hall’s “Big Blues” is just fine but, well, merely fine. “Down from Antigua” is the longest track here, and it is also the least interesting for this duo, a chordal workout for Hall that never really catches interest beyond tricky strumming.
But I quibble. Nine and a half minutes of “Turnaround” are bliss: pure time and swing, with each player reading the other’s mind, each note feeling like it was placed perfectly.
Are we going to miss Charlie Haden and Jim Hall? Ask any bassist or guitarist. Oh my, yes.