Extended Lesson: Bill Frisell Interviews Jim Hall

[Editor’s Note: With Jim Hall’s passing on December 10, 2013 at the age of 83, we thought we’d share this gem from our archives. It first appeared in the FJ’s 12th issue.]

I’m older than Jim Hall was when I first met him. I guess it was in 1971, or it might have even been 1970, and he came to Denver to play the Senate Lounge. I had started taking lessons with Dale Bruning in 1969, and I had heard Wes Montgomery by that time, maybe a little bit of Kenny Burrell, but I was just barely getting into it. One of the first people Dale mentioned–amongst Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and all these people I hadn’t heard of–was Jim Hall.

So the first Jim Hall record I got was Intermodulation, a duo album with Bill Evans. What Dale said (which was true) was, “You might not get this right away ‘cause it’s not flashy or fast.” But I really wanted to get it, I wanted to understand it. The first time I heard Wes Montgomery, it was like having your head blown off. This was more subtle. But, then, it didn’t take long–it was within one day. I listened to the thing again, and I listened again, and I listened again, and I started to hear something in the texture of the articulation and the phrasing and the breathing of it. I almost started to see or even feel his skin on the string…

Anyway, soon after I’d met Jim, it seemed like time to get out of Denver. I went to Berklee School of Music for one semester, and that didn’t really work for me at the time. I wasn’t relating; I ended up going back there years later, and it was cool, but at that time, it just wasn’t clicking at all. So I dropped out of school and went to stay with my parents, who’d moved to New Jersey.

My dad took me to see Jim at this place called the Guitar, and I asked Jim if I could take lessons. It was right at the beginning of 1972; I would go there every week for two months to take lessons. It was an awesome little period for me. I was 21 and I was so fired up about music, and he was this larger-than-life hero. He was just so friendly and unassuming and cool from the time I met him. Going to that first lesson, I could barely get through a tune, but he just made me feel like we were on the same sort of level.

After those few lessons, I went back to Colorado and studied some more with Dale, then I went back to Berklee. (At this point, I was more on the same wavelength with the school.) I studied more composition and arranging, and just kept pluggin’ away. In 1979, I finally moved to New York, after living in Belgium, and I ran into Jim soon after. I remember almost exactly where it was–Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue, which is close to where he lives. I’m walking down the street and I see him. He hadn’t seen me in seven or eight years, but he totally remembered me.

A couple more years went by, and, when I made my first album for ECM in 1982, I sent it to him. (I’d kept his address, and he hadn’t moved.) Jim called me, and he seemed excited by what I was doing. I didn’t know what he would think, because it had been 10 years since I was studying with him (and trying to imitate him), and I’d sort of found something of my own. The first thing he said after I sent him that first album was something like, “Wow, you came and took lessons from me, and now I’m taking lessons from you.” It was a gigantic compliment; he was saying that I had gotten to some place where I was doing something that inspired him a little bit, too.

So much of what I do is coming directly out of what I got from him–even the sound. The things that draw me to find these other sounds are things that I first thought about when I was listening to Jim. He’s listening to other instruments, not just thinking about the guitar. That’s a lot of what his thing is, and so much of what Jim pulls out of the guitar comes because he’s thinking about the phrasing and the breathing and the tone of these other instruments. A lot of the effects I use came out of that concept. I’ll hear a trumpet in my head and wonder what kind of box I can plug in that’ll make my guitar sound like a trumpet.

When I had my first lesson with Jim in 1972, it was the same week that Sonny Rollins was playing at the Village Vanguard after another one of those stretches where Sonny hadn’t played for a long time. It was a big thing. So I got to go hear Sonny Rollins in this little club, and it was right at the time that Jim had been talking about Sonny as a source of knowledge. “Listen to the way he develops his solos,” he said. “Listen to his sound.”

I think that’s one of the qualities that make Jim so special. He’s always listening to those around him; playing with him becomes more of a collective experience. What’s so attractive to me is the way he affects the whole situation–no matter whom he’s played with, and he’s played with a lot of greats. To me, that’s the heaviest thing. He offers not just inspiration, but encouragement as well, and that’s a big part of why he’s a great musician.

As a person, he did for me what he’s done for Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond; it’s about making the whole situation feel good, and he just made me feel like I knew how to play. It wasn’t about him showing off or something. Even our interview started that way–I’m getting ready to ask him questions, and right away, he starts asking me all these questions. It’s supposed to be an interview with him, but… (It’s no surprise that our duo collaboration is called The Art of Listening.)

I feel lucky to have this chance to acknowledge Jim’s influence and support once again. Music is such a delicate thing; your confidence, your whole thing, can break at any point. There have been a bunch of times during my life when, if someone had said the wrong thing, I could have just totally collapsed. Apart from the pure inspiration as a musician, he’s really helped me out just as a person–taught me to keep going.

Having lived a number of years since I first met him, I wanted to pick his brain–about music and about how he’s dealt with all the other issues that come up in a music career. I normally wouldn’t even think of interviewing another musician, but with Jim Hall, it was like a chance for another free lesson.

Getting Reacquainted

Jim Hall: I have a bunch of questions for you, too. One thing I’m really curious about, Bill, is what kind of music did you hear [growing up]? Where did you grow up?

Bill Frisell: In Denver.

JH: And you knew?

BF: Dale Bruning. And that’s how I met you.

JH: That’s right, through Dale.

BF: That was something for me, because he was the one who, in high school, said, “Have you heard of Charlie Parker?” Or Jim Hall or whomever. He was the one who just opened the whole world. And soon after that, you came to Denver to play; it was this little club, the Senate Lounge, this little dive.

JH: And Dale played bass for me!

BF: Something happened to the other bass[ist]. And Dale was trying to not play bass.

JH: I was encouraging him not to play bass, and then I said, “Dale, would you play bass tonight?”

BF: But also you ended up playing some guitar duets, and that was incredible. That was how I first met you. And then soon after that, my parents had moved to New Jersey, and then I came to see you at the Guitar and I asked you for some lessons.

JH: I met Pat Metheny there, too. He came in with Attila Zoller; he was one of Atilla’s students.

Did you [and Dale] also play together?

BF: Yes, I did some gigs with him around [Denver].

JH: Was it two guitars, or did he play bass?

BF: Well, usually it would be two guitars, maybe with a rhythm section, too, and it was sort of more like he was being nice to me, let me sit in. So many guys were so nice to me back then.

JH: Same here.

BF: Letting me show up at the place and come on up and play a song–that just helped so much.

JH: Yeah, you’re right, it is–I say that so often–but it is really like a family in the best sense of the word, I think. I remember Red Mitchell was working with Ben Webster out in California, and I may have met Ben before, but in any case I went by, and Red invited me to sit in. It was a great–it was Jimmy Rowles, Frank Butler and Red and Ben.

BF: Man, I wish coulda heard that.

JH: And so Ben kidnapped me, said, “OK, so you’re in the band,” and they sort of chipped in and paid me something anyway.

BF: Wow, that’s great!

JH: It was just such a great experience. Well, you can imagine, Ben Webster, I was–and still am–in awe of him and especially his ballad playing. But he would call and he’d say, “We have such and such tonight.” He’d say, “We’ll all meet at my house,” and that meant he needed a ride, you know?

BF: And that was in California?

JH: Yeah, that was Los Angeles. And then, one time, I was playing with Sonny Rollins–it was a little later–and we played at this incredible event in Washington, D.C. Ben was in town visiting, and he went and sat in with the Ellington band. And I got to see that, and then Sonny and I gave Ben a ride in the car back to New York City. That was a real trip. Ben was regaling us with stories from the back seat. But, yeah, it was and still is like a family, I think.

Listen and React

JH: Bill, how did you get so weird? I say this all the time. People ask me what guitar players I like, and I love to go hear and see you play because I literally laugh out loud. I never know what’s going to come out of you.

BF: I don’t know. I stole most of it from you. Who knows where all that stuff comes from?

JH: You were part of the encouragement for me to start using foot pedals. It pushes your brain in a different area. The only danger is that you get bored and you step on a foot pedal. And you do so many different kinds of music–playing with country players…

BF: A little bit.

JH: And I love this trio you have with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian.

BF: That’s been 25 years we’ve been doing that.

That was one of the things I wanted to ask you. With Paul and Joe, we get together once a year, now, but it seems like, years ago, there were more bands that stayed together. Looking back, it appears like you played with Jimmy Giuffre and then you played with Sonny and then you played with… Did you just stay in this one band during those times or is that just how it looks from a distance? Were you playing with all kinds of different musicians?

JH: No.

BF: So it was really like you joined a band and stayed together?

JH: Yeah, I think about that once in a while, too. Modern Jazz Quartet, of course, that was really unusual.

BF: It’s not even for how long. It seems like people used to really concentrate on that one band. Now, even with my own group, I have 25 different versions of my own group–all this diversity, switching things up all the time.

JH: I guess that’s good for your brain, too. I know what you mean. I’ve been working with the same people for a while. And you can sort of anticipate what the other guy is going to play and help them out.

When I worked with Art Farmer, I had a feeling that Art liked to hear a chord and then play over it, but when I worked with Sonny Rollins, I got a feeling that it would annoy him. You have to listen to what his notes are and then lay back a bit for a few seconds.

BF: There are so many things you’ve inspired me with, but one of the most important musical things is: When I listen to music, what really gets me off is what’s happening underneath and the chemical reactions that are happening that make the sound of the whole thing. And it seemed like, before you came along, it was either a Freddie Green rhythm thing–support for the piano–or it was Charlie Christian–sort of that rhythm or lead thing.

JH: Two of my heroes, by the way.

BF: But it seemed like so many situations you were in, where you were coming in from the inside–where there wasn’t a piano for one thing–you had the power to subvert… Being able to do that from underneath the music or inside it–with Art Farmer or Jimmy Giuffre or Sonny or Paul Desmond–I love that. The guitar became more of an orchestrator. It had such an effect on the sound of the whole group, and that sort of made a blueprint for me, for everything that I’ve done.

JH: As you know, working with a piano can be marvelous, or you can bump into each other. And I guess I was really fortunate in that, in just about every group I worked in–except the duets with Bill Evans, of course–there was no piano. So my kind of mantra was, Listen and react. And also, if we played opposite of or with a piano, it’s kind of fun. You can play a single line with a horn. A lot of times I like to hook up with a bass player, play rhythm; if a bass player is playing a solo, I can turn an amp down and play rhythm.

On the other hand, Freddie Green, I still think about him. Sometimes if I’m driving, I want to drive like Freddie Green, just a good groove…

BF: That’s still one of the biggest mysteries in life to me! You can do that. I read some stuff about how sometimes he was only playing two notes. And then somebody said sometimes he was only playing one note!

JH: Yeah. And Charlie Christian was my spiritual awakening. I heard him when I was 13. I went to a record store with a clarinet player in Cleveland; he was getting a Benny Goodman record and so he played a bit of that “Grand Slam,” that blues where he plays two choruses in F. I remember thinking, Whatever that is he’s doing, I wish I could do that. And I still feel that way.

BF: That stuff–the more I hear it, the more modern it sounds.

JH: What a mind he had, besides the musicality.

BF: And I keep hearing things, with his connections to things that Monk did. So many ideas were going back and forth. Like I heard that the song “Epistrophy” that Monk wrote was actually Charlie Christian; it was just something that he played.

JH: However, on the other hand, I almost have a phobia about living in the past. He did that perfectly, so to hell with that. And the same with Freddie. That’s what I really like about your playing; you keep looking forward all the time.

BF: And that’s how I feel about you. Now, I’ve known you for 35 years and I have a little more experience than when I first came over and I’ve learned a few things, but there’s something that happens when you’re naive about something and you jump off and you make a mistake, and it’s new. It seems like somehow you keep jumping off into that unknown. You’re able to keep this naivety, and that’s something that I’ve found easy to lose in life. How do you do that? Is that a conscious thing?

JH: Sometimes it is. If I play something that hits me as really trite, I’ll say, “Oh, no.” And then I’ll play the same thing in a different position. When I’m practicing, sometimes I’ll just tune one of my guitars randomly. When our mutual friend Gary Larson came for lessons–he’s a good guitar player–sometimes I’d just take a randomly tuned guitar and hand it to him and say, “Make something with this.” [laughter]

I try to stay with players that will keep pushing my brain. I’ve been doing a lot of duets with Geoffrey Keezer. He’s amazing; he played with Art Blakey’s group when he was 18, so he’s got this great timing and the greatest imagination. Sometimes, Geoff will take just four bars of a tune and play sort of a rhapsody on that and bring it back. I enjoy that. I never know what’s going to come out of me.

BF: That reminds me of one of the things you did at my lesson. I still haven’t figured this one out. We were going to play “Stella by Starlight.” And you said, “Play an intro”–where you had to pull something out of the air. I guess I figured out how to do that–I’ll make some random noises or something–but that was another revelation.

Like the thing about spontaneous composition. I went to hear you at the Vanguard–and I don’t remember what tune you were playing–but you took a little phrase, and it was over quite a number of choruses, and at the end of each chorus, you would play this idea again. It was so amazing, in a compositional way. I guess the question is whether you ever preconceive of those things, or is it just something that happens spontaneously?

JH: I would like to think that it happened spontaneously, but I know that sometimes I’ll take part of the tune and just work on that to develop it. I don’t know if it comes from having done a lot of comp–I got through the Cleveland Institute of Music somehow and I did quite a bit of composition. It seems to make sense to me, and I’ve never had the technical chops, anyway, to do the other stuff, so it’s just fun to take a little idea and develop it, and you can poke it around.

BF: When I hear your writing… I did this blindfold test, and they played a thing from an arrangement, and I knew it was you, and you weren’t playing or anything. When you’re writing music or when you’re playing, is there any way to describe similarities or differences in what you go through?

JH: A lot of times I’ll make sort of a rhythmic sketch first.

BF: If you’re just playing the guitar, is your mind working in the same way as if you’re writing?

JH: Probably not, actually, because you always have an eraser when you’re writing. I often say I make a living recovering from mistakes. I am very aware of the form and the shape of a piece and I don’t want it to get boring. I’m aware of the shape a lot.

BF: Do you ever see the larger form of the whole thing?

JH: I’m not sure about that.

BF: I guess what I’m wondering is how intuitive it is when you play; it seems to come so spontaneously.

JH: On the other hand, I find myself doing with the Trio the same thing: You play a long guitar solo, then a bass solo, then a drum solo, then you take it out. And I’m dying to get away from that more and more.

BF: But when you’re in a trio, it’s always a conversation.

JH: Good. I have a low boredom threshold–like you do, too. The first time I heard that trio with you and Joe Lovano and Paul Motian, I was blown away. And Joe is, as you know, one of the most spontaneous players. He dives into things and he lands on his feet all the time. I’ve written some stuff with weird chord changes, and it doesn’t faze him. He just goes and makes it. He’s an inspiration in that way, too.

Cleveland Seeds

BF: You were talking about Cleveland where you grew up. Was there a clear moment when you felt like you were going to play music? Like, you were playing guitar and then decided, “I’m going to play guitar for the rest of my life”?

JH: I’m not sure. The first music I heard was my Uncle Red–kind of a hillbilly, played guitar and sang country music. And then my mom got me a guitar–I must have been 9–and I started taking guitar lessons. I started working with little groups and then I heard Charlie Christian, and that was a big thing. I went out and got, on 78s, an album of that music. I don’t even think I had a record player; I would take it to people’s houses. I remember on the cover it said “Benny Goodman Sextet,” and I was on a streetcar or something, and the way my arm was, it just said “Sex,” so I said I better adjust the arm so it said “Sextet.” [laughs]

I think it made my mom uncomfortable, jazz music. That was sort of my rebelling, actually. So after she went to work, I’d listen to Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. And I kept working as a musician. And just somewhere along the line I knew I wanted to be a better musician.

BF: But you were able to get work when you were pretty young?

JH: Weekends. Even when I was in music school, I played weekends and did some teaching. And I had a friend, a bass player, whose wife worked at the office of the Cleveland Institute of Music. I had enrolled in Western Reserve, I guess. A part of this is that my mom didn’t want me to leave Cleveland. And I was going to be an English major, and then I saw my schedule and said, Nah, there’s no music. So I talked to my friend the bass player and I took about six months off to practice the piano, so I could get in. I had to pass the exam. I was allowed to pay the tuition, about 300 bucks. By then I had pretty much decided that that’s what I wanted to do.

BF: So many times, just when I wasn’t feeling so good, someone would say, “You sound great!” The first day I came over to that lesson with you, you made me feel like I could actually play. That was a huge thing to me.

JH: Of course!

BF: So there must have been some people who encouraged you along the way, right?

JH: I’m glad you mention that. I had a couple of good teachers. The first was a guy named Jack Derow. We just did the standard Nick Manoloff books and stuff, but he was very encouraging. And then after I heard Charlie Christian, there was a man, who just died recently, named Fred Sharp. He did what you said–he opened me up. He’d play these chords, flat nine, and he got me listening to Django Reinhardt. I think he did a lot to do what you suggested.

And then I met some local musicians who were marvelous. There was a piano player named Bill DiNasco, who was really pushing the envelope all the time, trying free stuff. We had a quartet for a while–it was guitar, bass, piano and tenor sax–and we all wore glasses, so we called ourselves the Spectacles. It was fun. And we used to sing. And I left that group, and they were really bummed. I just decided I was going to become a better musician.

And the Institute of Music was great; there were a number of teachers who left Europe because of the Nazi situation. The guy I studied composition with played on the first Schoenberg String Quartet performance. It was a little scary, actually, but there were some great teachers. No guitar and no jazz, but then I’d play on weekends.

BF: Even when I was in college, there was no guitar; you didn’t study guitar. They had Johnny Smith; he came to my college in Colorado, but it was not really a formal part of the studies.

JH: I had a couple of really good experiences with people who were encouraging. Just the fact that I was able to get into that terrific school coming from hillbilly Ohio. The only classical music I knew… I guess I liked [Paul] Hindemith because it probably reminded me of Stan Kenton, and [hearing] Igor Stravinsky, I always thought of Woody Herman’s band. And in five years, Mozart got so much better.

BF: Mozart is starting to sound really good to me now.

JH: When I hear some of that now, it sounds fresh, just because I’ve been doing this other stuff for so long. Just the fact that you said that I was encouraging to you, that helps, too. I think of it a bit as if I was a painter or a writer; you allow yourself to grow every day. And keep moving, with any luck, forward. It’s almost like if someone saw some of Picasso’s late paintings and said, “Oh, Pablo, go back to that Blue period…”

BF: That was another one of my questions. I know you’ve been inspired by visual art. We were talking about Gary [Larson]. Sometimes I think I’m as much or more inspired by visual things or thinking about the impulse that makes someone want to draw a cartoon. That gets closer to what it is for me about trying to make music, rather than copying what I’ve heard on some record. But I’ve heard you say that before, that you’ll go look at a painting and get inspired.

JH: And also, you don’t start comparing yourself to them. I’ve become a huge fan of silence. I’ll wear earplugs on the street when I’m walking [my dog] Django.

I don’t mean to get negative but I feel so bad that so much of what people hear is in the hands of marketers; I feel like a lot of young people are really being cheated.

BF: I saw this documentary on TV about Alan Lomax, who went around his whole life and recorded folk music around the world. He said that a musician was a transmitter, and the person listening was the receiver. He called it cultural equality. In the past, no one told the musician what to do; a musician played music, and people listened to the music. And there was a one-on-one, back-and-forth exchange. And he was saying, now, it’s getting to the point where there’s like three guys with cigars up in some thing, and those are the transmitters, deciding what everyone is going to hear, whatever corporate thing. And everyone is sitting like zombies in front of the TV, not even the radio any more. It’s gotten so out of proportion, and the music has gotten so controlled.

So I was going to ask you about ArtistShare. It seems like it’s putting the control right back to you. All along, I always felt like you were one of the people who stayed true to yourself, and that’s always been there, but I know it’s a struggle, and it gets harder and harder. This situation now sounds really hopeful.

JH: [ArtistShare founder] Brian [Camelio] is great about that. And he’s an excellent musician, so he comes from that background. There’s no control. Parenthetically, I keep looking at the sports station, and it keeps mentioning a player, and before it even says his name, it says his salary. And it’s getting to be like that with music, too. I don’t mean to say, “These kids today…” I hate that, too; I grew up with that crap. But it does seem to be more and more in the hands of marketing people. That’s distressing. I’m sure it’s the same with you.

When I play in the club–which is one reason that I like recording live, with screw-ups and everything–my feeling is that the audience is a big part of it, and I try to maybe take the audience and me someplace together that we haven’t been before. I think I would get nervous if I start selling zillions of records–that I must be doing something wrong. I always felt that way.

Cultural Changes

JH: I hate to get into this, but I played at the White House one time with a Duke Ellington tribute. It was the good old days–it was Nixon. I wasn’t gonna go, but I said, “Well, it’s not his White House; we own the White House.”

So, anyway, there’s a picture of all of us standing on a stage, and the president talking to Duke, and I found out later from somebody who knew Duke Ellington really well that he felt the same way that the rest of us did.

BF: Who were you playing with there?

JH: Gerry Mulligan wrote some charts.  It was Gerry, Paul Desmond, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones, Bill Berry… Anyway, it was an interesting evening. I managed not to shake his hand. There was a receiving line, and I pretended I had something to do, but then he jumped up on the stage and grabbed everybody’s… I couldn’t.

BF: I was curious if you had any thoughts about that time in particular or in the earlier ‘60s. I always felt amongst musicians like there was this community that we felt. I don’t know exactly what the question is, but for me, there were these really momentous, heavy changes–like when Kennedy got killed or when Martin Luther King got killed and all the racial tension. I always felt with musicians that we were kind of in this, not a bubble, but a community of people where things were cool. You were a musician; it wasn’t like you were white or black or anything.

JH: Exactly. Yeah, I felt the same way, and unfortunately, I got in trouble a few times because I was naive about that. I didn’t realize that especially some of the older black people that I worked with had been through the crap in the South. Occasionally, I would get a little out of line, I think, because I just assumed, like you, that we were a family, and I think we are.

In fact, when I was in the hospital recently, I remember Ron Carter called me, and we were talking about Obama. He says, “Mac, can you imagine this in our day and age?” I remember Ron and I would get anyplace near the South–or with Chico [Hamilton]–I would be the one that was sent in to get coffee or something. People would think I was the manager all the time.

BF: You’re talking about even when there were still separate bathrooms and that kind of stuff, right?

JH: I guess, yeah. I think that it pretty much folded, but the feeling was still there, especially amongst Ben Webster, I remember, and Roy Eldridge and Ella Fitzgerald. They went through that stuff. You know, they’re 20 or so years older than I am.

But you’re right, I always felt like jazz musicians were a family. I don’t know if it’s ironic or what, but I think the first black guy who became the manager of a really successful jazz group [George Shearing] was John Levy, who’s now my son-in-law–a black guy with a Jewish name.

BF: I know you’re supersensitive and aware of when there’s a war, and there’s this and there’s that. Did you feel anything would come out in the music differently, or do you think music was just separate from all that? Did you ever feel like something changed in the music?

JH: That’s interesting. Well, I’m sure it affects what’s at least in one’s unconscious as you’re playing. Gee, I don’t know; it must, Bill, somehow. I remember rehearsing with Art Farmer up in Montreal, and it was the day that Kennedy was assassinated. I remember we were supposed to rehearse, and Steve Swallow and I went to Walter Perkins’ room to pick up Walter. There was one of these speaker radios or something on the wall, and we were waiting for Walter to get dressed, so Steve just pushed a button, and it said something about John F. Kennedy was shot. It wasn’t clear whether he had died or nothin’.

So then we were rehearsing at this club, and the television was on with all that coverage of that thing. Yeah, but it took on a different sort of poignancy, I think, being there, you know?

BF: I was wondering–is there something in particular that makes you choose a song?  Are you thinking about the words of the song?

JH: Well, that’s interesting. Somebody told me, or I read someplace, that Lester Young liked to know the words to a song so he would know what the idea behind the tune was. Sometimes I’ll–for instance, I love the Coleman Hawkins record of “Body and Soul,” of course–so when I play that I’m thinking of Coleman Hawkins. And sometimes I imitate his ending.

I enjoy working with the little motifs and juggling them around and making compositions out of them. Occasionally, I’ll try to make the composition appropriate to the [song]; if it’s a regular standard, I’ll try to make it appropriate. “Body and Soul,” I think it’s Coleman Hawkins–and also the words to the song.

BF: When you grew up, do you remember hearing “My Funny Valentine” or something like that?

JH: Yeah.

BF: But it was a popular song during your lifetime, I guess.

JH: Bill Evans, of course, is not a bad player, and I got a kick out of what he did. “My Funny Valentine” was usually done as a slow ballad, and so Bill decided that he and I should do it as an uptempo thing. He would mess with tempos until he got it to work.  Too bad he wasn’t a better player [laughter]. That was a loss man, that guy, Jesus.

Anyhow, yeah, I do try to be aware of the tune and if it has any poignancy in my life and that sort of thing. And then some tunes that Janey, my wife, likes–Janey loves “All the Things You Are.” That’s her favorite of all time.

Janey’s folks took her to all the Broadway shows when she was a kid, and so she actually made me have more, quote, “respect” for songs. I think I used to think of them as just chord changes, you know, to play on.

Reminiscing in Tempo

BF: You were sort of in that big awakening when I first found out about jazz.

JH: That’s interesting. That’s very flattering to hear because, I don’t know about you, but I have no concept of being well-known. Even as we speak, the guitar is sitting there frowning at me. “You ought to tune me today, dummy.” It’s an every-day experience.

You saw me in the hospital when I was still flat out, but I’m able to get around a bit here now. I’m still pretty gimpy, but I’ve figured a way, I hope, to play the guitar sitting down, and I’m really looking forward to recording again. It’s funny what I’ve learned, too. First is, when I’m playing, I keep finding my elbow is in the way, and I said, “Well, dummy, it’s ‘cause of the way you’re sitting. When you stand, you’re elbow doesn’t bump into your knee. I should get some pictures of Segovia, I guess…

Bartok was always my favorite music to listen to when I was in school. And even in Cleveland there was a large Hungarian population, so I heard lots of fantastic Hungarian music–the cimbalom players–and sometimes there would be two violins, a string bass and a cymbal, and maybe an accordion or something.

BF: Are cimbalom sort of like that dulcimer kind of thing?

JH: Yeah, exactly.

BF: Wow, yeah, that’s an incredible sound.

JH: Isn’t it? And the bass would be playing arcos, as I remember, and one of the fiddles would be sort of playing accompaniment figures.

BF: Oh, yeah. One time I went to a restaurant in Budapest, and there was a band like that playing. It was incredible. And the bass was playing arcos the whole time. I just remember, also, the way they played tempo. I keep thinking about that–they would slow down and speed up all together in this amazing way. It made me think of trying to do that when we’re playing jazz.

JH: Well, when I first started anyway, we played for dancers all the time, and I guess you wouldn’t slow down and speed up for dancers.

BF: But it was like they were just breathing together or something.

JH: Ron Carter and I played a concert at Athens one time, and I had this little silly thing I’d do on one of our tunes, where I’d play it by myself and I’d go into 5/4 sometimes and 7/4. We were taken out to dinner, Ron and I, the night before and we heard this Greek band. So the next day, I said, “Man, 5/4? Big deal.” People were clapping on the right places in seven!

BF: Yeah, that’s wild.

JH: Isn’t it?

BF: Yeah, and they dance to that. That’s really crazy.

JH: So, listen, we gotta do a lot of that on this record.

This article originally appeared as the cover story for the Fretboard Journal #12