Jim Hall and Bill Frisell – Hemispheres – ArtistShare, AS0079, CD 1: 60:33/CD 2: 55:37 ****1/2:
(Jim Hall – acoustic and electric guitars; Bill Frisell – electric guitar and effects; Scott Colley – drums on CD 2; Joey Baron – drums on CD 2)
On Hemispheres, two generations of jazz guitar come together on an incomparable collaboration. Any fan of six string jazz performance no doubt has heard previous recordings from Jim Hall and/or Bill Frisell. Hall is a broad-minded stylist with a harmonically, highly evolved technique which, about fifty years after his solo debut, has stayed modernist, while continuing to reference the foundations of post-war jazz. Frisell fell under Hall’s tutelage, absorbed Hall’s harmonic theories, but mastered an individual approach with atmospheric dexterity and a capacity to improvise in rock, country, bluegrass, and other genres, thus building a spacious tonal palette that can be adjusted to almost any musical direction or situation. On Hemispheres, Hall and Frisell gracefully and empathetically meld their separate gifts, creating two hours of subtle intensity. The emphasis on both CDs is on exceptional improvising and the uncanny communication between two guitarists.
Although Hall and Frisell formerly paired on two cuts on Hall’s 1995 outing Dialogues, Hemispheres is by far a more effective and fulfilling partnership.
The double album is split between a duo side and a quartet side. Disc one contains an hour of decisive duo storytelling, recorded on an 8-track tape deck in engineer Tony Scheer’s Brooklyn, New York residence, an open environment which provides an intimate depth in glorious sounding analog. The fret-board friendship reveals rapport, unity, and the ten tracks yield a few twists. On Frisell’s spontaneously inventive “Throughout,” Hall executes a characteristically soft touch, while Frisell uses digital effects to elongate his notes, his chords lingering in the air. This extended inverse interchange continues on the seven-minute-plus urban tale “All Across the City,” a Jim Hall composition that affords room for Hall and Frisell to generously craft and tweak the melody and add some melancholy emotion. During the literal living room set Frisell and Hall also offer a couple of standards, including Milt Jackson’s much loved “Bag’s Groove,” a detailed, poised jam that is a study in blues territory. The first disc’s other cover is a solemn and inspiring interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Although the tune was picked by Hall for the session, who liked the lyrics but had never heard the original version, Frisell leads the way with an unearthly abstract affection, sure-footedly tracing his path through the melody like a mountain climber searching for the next toe hold. While the number is delicately handled, it is anything but background music, and should be heard several times with attentive ears to be fairly assessed.
Hall’s and Frisell’s sense of freedom and play comes into its own on “Beijing Blues,” where Frisell’s Telecaster duels with Hall’s D’Aquisto acoustic. There’s an almost tongue-in-cheek idiosyncrasy as Hall and Frisell manage to both imitate and torque Chet Atkins’ pristine picking trait.
The biggest surprise, though, belongs to “Migration,” a fifteen-minute free improv essay. The intent of this, and the other related unpremeditated pieces, is simple and straightforward: Frisell creates a soundscape that Hall ad-libs over. While Frisell manipulates his myriad multiple effects, Hall paints a wide ranging musical canvas. Vigilant ears can even hear Frisell moving knobs and other tools of his sonic trade. The effusive epic starts nebulous and otherworldly and gradually shifts to a moist blues progression that evokes Loren MazzaCane Connors’ avant-garde conceptions. Some may find the opus overlong, but those with an adventurous streak will be partial to the magnified, poetic and mysterious music.
Disc two is a traditionally inclined quartet setting that combines several covers with four originals. This may turn out to be the favored material for those who prefer Hall’s mainstream output. Stand-up acoustic bassist Scott Colley, who has recorded with Jim Hall on other occasions, and drummer Joey Baron, who has worked with both Hall and Frisell, prove to be the perfect rhythm section for Frisell and Hall.
The second side begins with a refined, swinging rendition of “I’ll Remember April” that suitably sets the tone for much of the ten compositions. During the nearly one hour presentation the four musicians also expand and explore on two Duke Ellington tracks: a tasteful and responsive reading of the time-honored Billy Strayhorn-penned marvel “Chelsea Bridge,” and a sympathetic communion on a gently nostalgic “In a Sentimental Mood.” Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” comes across as a softened, easygoing and playful caper, while the foursome cook up an aural ambrosia on a soulfully swaying take of Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.”
As expected, the originals developed for the studio session are more enigmatic and unfettered. “Barbaro” mixes Frisell’s modalistic experimentation with Hall’s fluid acoustic delivery. Baron’s “Card Tricks” is also an outside-of-the-box outline that gives space for Frisell and Baron to attain a distinctively strange temperament. One of many highlights is Hall’s “Owed to Freddie Green” an aromatic tribute to the definitive rhythm guitarist who was in the Count Basie band for roughly half a century. The rhythmically focused cut echoes Green’s hallmark steadfast pulse and sounds like a bona fide standard in the making.
In addition to the music, the package also has a 20-page booklet crammed with explanatory text, session photos, information on the ArtistShare fan-funded project, and specifically selected, hand-written charts (the “Card Tricks” draft is an amusing demonstration of minimalism). The ArtistShare digital album download website includes bonus material not found on the physical compact disc release, comprising outtakes, previous performances, and videos of conversations and interviews.
The sound quality throughout Hemispheres is close and natural, befitting and benefiting the artists’ aims. As mentioned, disc one was recorded in an apartment, using an analog Otari 8-track tape machine, utilizing a variety of microphones – including a 1940s-era Western Electric ribbon microphone. The replication is authentic, right down to ambient tape hiss and slight room noise. This may inconvenience listeners anticipating a cleaner, digital recording, but it captures the two guitarists aptly and accurately. Disc two was produced digitally at New York City’s Sear Sound studio using multitrack technology. The location works beautifully to preserve the quiet strength and drama of the musicians, who set up in a close circle together and played as if in a jazz club.
2 All Across the City
3 Bag’s Groove
6 Waiting to Dance
8 Masters of War
9 Beijing Blues
10 Monica Jane
1 I’ll Remember April
3 Chelsea Bridge
4 Owed to Freddie Green
5 Beija Flor
6 Hear and Now
7 My Funny Valentine
8 Card Tricks
9 In a Sentimental Mood
10 Sonnymoon for Two
— Doug Simpson