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 "Saxophon"  "Schlagzeugler" "Jim Hall"

"Listening is still the key"
the ‘compositional’ approach in Ed Bickert’s & Jim Hall’s improvisations

by Werner Fischer


Ed Bickert and Jim Hall belong to the same generation of jazz guitar players who absorbed largely similar influences. Their individual approaches to improvisation appear to me to cover a lot of common ground. While Jim is one of the jazz world’s favorite guitarists Ed Bickert has always kept a low profile, with only occasional festival appearances south of the Canadian border and a handful of overseas dates. However, over the years the legend of this Toronto-based master has crossed all international boundaries, at least among jazz guitarists’ circles.

Jim Hall’s musical style has been in a state of continuous development throughout the course of his career. For a better comparison of the improvisational concepts underlying these two outstanding musicians at a certain period in time i have chosen to highlight Jim’s recordings from the the late sixties and early seventies and Ed’s collaborations with the alto player Paul Desmond from the mid-seventies. In all of the examples provided (the one exception being the Hall-Carter duo) the guitarists find themselves either in a trio or a quartet situation not involving another comping instrumentalist. Since all my transcriptions of Ed Bickert’s solos focus on his collaboration with Paul Desmond i have also included an earlier solo of Jim’s originating from a 1963 Paul Desmond recording.

In the liner notes to the album “Take Ten” Paul Desmond half-jokingly depicts himself as having “won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness. My compatriot in this venture is Jim Hall...”

Jim is known as a rather modest and unassuming man (the English call him the Quiet American), and his musical style is recognizable not by a recurring signature riff or motif, but by his approach, his sound and his feeling. Jim’s approach has been referred to as “compositional”, as he considers the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of a tune in constructing his arrangements and solos. Clarity is the thing he is after, and to that end he’s a master of avoiding clichés. His approach to the interaction between players is also a much-discussed subject. The musicians who work with him talk of responsiveness, empathy, and communication. “His concept of time is a model to emulate,” says drummer Joey Baron. “Jim plays but a few notes, leaving space for conversations with me.” According to Jim, “listening is still the key.”

I think that all of this assumptions also apply and hold true to Ed Bickert’s musical style. Both of these musicians are masters of understatement, of rather not playing than playing meaningless notes. And last but not least, i find great similarity even in their ‘warm sound’, in spite of the circumstance that Ed has never used a jazz box but always played on that same old, worn, creamy-yellow Telecaster.

Ed Bickert, born on November 29, 1932, in Manitoba, Canada, has achieved a certain amount of fame from his recordings with Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, and Stanley Turrentine, but is still generally unrecognized as a master within his genre, absolutely unsurpassed in harmonic subtlety, and sympathetic accompaniment. His early interest in guitar was in part influenced by his musical household (his mother and father played piano and guitar in country bands). He was self-taught, developing an interest in jazz harmony by studying and analyzing Stan Kenton records. Via radio broadcasts from the American West Coast, he heard and was influenced by the Nat “King” Cole Trio, guitarist Oscar Moore, Barney Kessel and Les Paul. After his arrival in Toronto in the 1950's he quickly rose to prominence as a fine studio and session player.
It was only after twenty years of steady contribution to the jazz scene in Toronto that he was exposed to American audiences. When Paul Desmond accepted an engagement at Bourbon Street, a Toronto night spot, guitarist Jim Hall recommended that he sign on Bickert as part of his rhythm section. Desmond was so impressed with Bickert's playing that he used him on his next recording; “Pure Desmond”. That recording, exposed Ed Bickert to a broader American audience and started a succession of US based recordings that continue today. Jim Hall had known about Ed Bickert for many years before he recommended him to Desmond in 1974, because Bickert had already established a reputation for himself with guitarists like Hall outside of Canada. And, it's almost certain that Hall recognized in Bickert a musician who was dedicated to developing his skills while developing a unique approach to the jazz guitar; two characteristics other guitar players instantly recognize and value.
Jim Hall was born on December 4, 1930 in Buffalo and raised in New York and Ohio. Spending his early years first in New York, then in Columbia and ultimately in Cleveland, Jim was first introduced to music at home by his mother who played piano, his violin playing grandfather and his uncle who played the guitar. When Jim was 10 years old, his mother gave him a guitar for Christmas and it was then that he began to seriously study the instrument. By the age of 13 Jim had become a professional musician playing locally in Cleveland with a group consisting of an accordion, clarinet, drums and, of course, guitar. The clarinet player turned Jim on to Benny Goodman’s recording of Solo Flight which featured the guitar playing of Charlie Christian.
It was later that Jim was introduced to the playing of Django Reinhardt. Jim continued to play in small combos throughout high school, and after graduation entered the Cleveland Institute of Music where he majored in music theory. Shortly thereafter, Jim left Ohio for Los Angeles. It was there, in 1955, as a member of the original Chico Hamilton Quintet with Buddy Collette on reeds, Freddie Katz on cello and Carson Smith on bass, that Jim began to attract national, and then international, attention. By 1960 Jim had arrived in New York to work with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer, among others.
Continuously pursuing new avenues of musical expression, Jim’s career has been one of ongoing experimentation, particularly with instrumental combinations.

Musical Styles and Analysis
What Paul Desmond discovered in Ed Bickert's playing in 1974 was a very full chordal style that caused him, as he said in the liner notes of “The Paul Desmond Quartet Live”, to turn "around several times a night to count the strings on his guitar". It is this chordal style that has become the hallmark of Bickert's playing and has drawn comparisons to George Van Eps and Ted Greene. And, although an Ed Bickert chord is instantly recognized, it is the overall musicianship of this guitarist that sets him apart - the richness, subtlety and complexity of the music he coaxes from his old worn Telecaster whether comping chords or playing single string melodies.
Ed provides music that is seemingly simple, yet deceivingly complex, an emalgamation of swing and bop-based lines, moving inner voices, chord substitution and more, always played with impeccable taste and restraint.
If a guitarist exists (or has existed) with a stronger command of "chordal playing" than Ed Bickert, I am not aware of him. I was immediately struck by his ability to imply 4, 5, or 6 part chords with 3 note voicings (cf Things Ain’t bars 4 & 6, My Funny Valentine bars 11f). Many of Ed's voicings are tricky to play.
At the heart of Ed's style is one of jazz' fundamental concepts; tension and release. I imagine there are those who would listen to Bickert and announce that much of his music is without tension, and I could understand their misguided notion. So adept is Ed in his harmonic command, that he resolves much of the tension he creates before people realize there was any dissonance in the first place (cf in My Funny Valentine bars 5ff Ed plays a rather dissonant Db on top of a Abmaj7 chord resolving it by means of a minor cliché: Db-D-Eb-D).
Many of the voicings Ed uses just don't get used by a lot of other guitarists. In an age where, 40 years after Wes Montgomery, most guitarists who play "chord solos" still resort to using his block-chord type voicings, it is wonderful to hear someone take the artform to another level (cf Things Ain’t).
Critics and writers have noted correctly that Jim Hall draws his inspiration from many sources, and indeed a lifetime of experiences. One such experience took place in the late 1950s while Jim was on tour in South America with Ella Fitzgerald. Engrossed with the “local” music, Jim stayed on when the tour ended, spending six weeks in Rio de Janeiro just as the Bossa Nova was coming into being. This exposure was to prove invaluable and become a part of Jim’s musical versatility as evidenced later in his recordings with Sonny Rollins “What’s New” in 1962 and Paul Desmond “Take Ten” and “Bossa Antigua”, both recorded in1963 (cf Black Orpheus).
Jim became aware of the possible variations in instrumental combinations early on. In 1957 saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre invited Jim to become a member of his trio. Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer soon replaced the bassist in the trio. “Giuffre’s idea – at least after

Brookmeyer joined us – was to have three linear instruments improvise collectively” recalls Jim. “He believed it didn’t make any difference whether or not the group had bass or drums. He said the instruments should be able to keep time themselves. It was damn hard, yet it was one of the most enlarging experiences I’ve had.” Just to what extent Jim is capable in taking this concept can be appreciated by his solo introduction to Body And Soul (bars 1 - 16, oddly though, the bass player enters the B section of the tune with a time of his own to which Jim immediately responds).
Producer Herb Wong has drawn attention to Jim’s “horn inspired solos”. it is interesting to note that Jim looks upon his experience with Sonny Rollins back in 1961 as a turning point in his career. Of that year Jim recalls “He (Sonny Rollins) had a way of taking a tune apart and putting it back together again right in front of your eyes… his loose adventuresome way of playing influenced my playing.” Check out the opening bars 1 - 15 of Jim’s solo on Autumn Leaves, which almost bring the tune to an entire stop before picking it up again with a fluent line in bars 16f.
Jim’s approach has been earlier referred to as “compositional”, considering the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of a tune in constructing a solo. Both Jim and Ed are very melodic players and make extensive use of motivic development which often is the single most important device which structures their improvisations.
At times they start out with parts of the actual melody of a tune. Ed’s solo on Everything I Love serves to illustrate this approach: he starts out with recapturing the melody and keeps repeating and slightly changing its motive - including its rhythm - over the next 5 bars. not until bar 9 does he introduce a new melodic motive which also bears a strong rhythmical resemblance to the beginning of the original melody. Jim starts his solo in Black Orpheus with a one-bar line which is closely associated with the melody. He repeats the exact notes in bar 5 and a slightly altered rhythm in bar 9.
More often they start out with a motive of their own invention, may it be intervallic or rhythmical. Have a look at the two triplets in It’s Nice bars 1 - 4 and 6 - 10; the triplets in My Funny Valentine bars 2, 4 & 6; the dotted quarters followed by a half-notes throughout the first 15 bars of Autumn Leaves; the three eights followed by quarters in Wave bars 2 - 7; or the dotted eights followed by a sixteenth and their rhythmical inversion in the first 8 bars of Body And Soul.
When referring to Jim’s sound, reviewers consistently use words such as “warm”, “mellow”, “gentle”, “subtle”, “rich tone”, and “lightly amplified”. Then there is the marriage between feeling and sound. Few instrumentalists of any kind in any genre – jazz, rock or classical – play with such warmth and expressiveness as Ed Bickert & Jim Hall do, with the kind of genuine feeling that separates great music from the technically proficient yet cold-hearted brand.

List of Transcriptions

1) Wave from "Live" (Verve 543 501-2):
Paul Desmond (as), Ed Bickert (g), Don Thompson (b), Jerry Fuller (dr), 1975.

2) My Funny Valentine from "Live" (Verve 543 501-2):
Paul Desmond (as), Ed Bickert (g), Don Thompson (b), Jerry Fuller (dr), 1975.

3) Things Ain’t What They Used To Be from "Live" (Verve 543 501-2):
Paul Desmond (as), Ed Bickert (g), Don Thompson (b), Jerry Fuller (dr), 1975.

4) Everything I Love from "Pure Desmond" (CBS ZK 40806):
Paul Desmond (as), Ed Bickert (g), Ron Carter (b), Connie Kay (dr), 1974.

5) Body And Soul from "It's Nice To Be With You" (MPS LP BAP 5041):
Jim Hall (g), Jimmy Woode (b), Daniel Humair (dr), 1969.

6) It's Nice To Be With You from "It's Nice To Be With You" (MPS LP BAP 5041):
Jim Hall (g), Jimmy Woode (b), Daniel Humair (dr), 1969.

7) Autumn Leaves from "Alone Together" OJC CD 467-2:
Jim Hall (g), Ron Carter (b), 1972.

8) Black Orpheus from “Take Ten” RCA 0926 68690-2:
Paul Desmond (as), Jim Hall (g), Gene Cherico (b), Connie Kay (dr), 1963.