Jim Hall and Ron Carter: a jazz duo getting attentive respect from audiences
New York — Jazz guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ron Carter are living proof that good things come in small packages - or, in this case, pairs. Their recent engagement here attracted attentive, respectful, and silent audiences - a rarity in any jazz room! The two nights I was there, the atmosphere was subdued, but the magic of the musical empathy that went on between Hall and Carter generated a kind of quiet excitement. The strategically placed mirrors on the walls and ceiling of the club made it possible to view the duo from a variety of angles.
There is something special about two musicians playing together. It's a ''strip down'' situation that allows neither one to fake it, gloss over the rough patches, or hide behind the other. And when the two musicians happen to be Jim Hall and Ron Carter, it becomes something much more than just a guitarist accompanied by a bassist. As Hall put it during a chat on his break, ''I like to think of it as a duet.''
Of course the ideal in jazz is that every musician be a superbly sensitive listener. In a large group, however - such as a big band, or even a quintet or sextet, especially where written music is involved - it's not so crucial. If the players are competent readers and reasonably good soloists, the band will sound good. But pared down to two, either it works or it doesn't. Said Hall: ''It's kind of fragile, in a way. When it's good, it gets intense, but a noisy crowd can mess it up.''
At the Village West, there was no noisy crowd to mess up delicately spun versions of such standards as ''Summertime,'' (played as a jazz waltz), ''I Can't Get Started,'' and ''Autumn Leaves.'' Jazz tunes like ''Blue Monk'' and ''Bags Groove,'' which could be ho-hum with just guitar and bass, were reworked with modern chord tensions, giving them an intriguing, oblique sound. But the main feast was the ongoing musical conversation between Hall and Carter.
Jim Hall, whose name was associated with saxophonist-clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and drummer Chico Hamilton in the '50s and saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz in the '60s, has been playing a lot of solo and duo since the mid-'70s. In 1965, he stopped touring to play for the Merv Griffin Show. The past couple of years, he has worked regularly with two Canadian musicians, drummer Terry Clarke and pianist-bassist Don Thompson.
Guitar-bass duo is one of Hall's favorite musical formats, and Ron Carter fills the bass slot beautifully. Carter, who also plays cello and piccolo bass (a tiny version of the bass, tuned like a backwards cello) is considered by some to be a ''jazz superstar.'' Best known for his stint with Miles Davis from 1963 to 1968, Carter has also played with Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, George Benson, and Stanley Turrentine, as well as leading his own groups, which he continues to do.
He and Hall played together a decade ago - and even made a duo album, ''Alone Together'' (Milestone). It's been about a year since their reunion.
Carter, although he has played and continues to play in a wide variety of styles and contexts, seems to be tailor-made for Hall. The two are so finely tuned to each other that at times their sound overlaps and it's hard to tell who's playing what. Hall, naturally, has nothing but praise for the sensitivity of the bassist.
''It's worth it with Ron - he gets inside your brain.''