Jim Hall (guitar)
The Complete Jazz Guitar (1956-60), Dedications &: Inspirations (1993), Dialogues (1995), By Arrangement (1998), Jim Hall & Basses (2001)
The advice with this West Coaser is to hang on until you get to the music he made in his '60s and later, because that's when it gets interesting. So says the Penguin Guide. With the older stuff, apparently, you're in danger of overdosing on niceness. Hall was playing with big names and produced one quiet, economical solo after the other. There are no bad tracks on, say The Complete Jazz Guitar but his most enjoyable early work is probably as a partner. He's a perfect fit in the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and with Paul Desmond, working with people who were on the same page as him.
After a huge gap, the late bloom starts with the intriguing Dedications &: Inspirations the first of some adventurous projects. Here he plays solo and overdubs himself to surprising and pleasant effect. The next rated album Dialogues was the one that won me over. It's a set of his own compositions played, two each, with five top partners. Fascinating stuff – even a very abstract accordion works here – that's probably even more enjoyable if you're a guitar buff. The same goes for By Arrangement (big groups, strings and a slightly cheesy choir on one track) and Jim Hall & Basses, (duets with top bass players).
This isn't party music (unless it's a dinner party with hipster friends) but Jim Hall is always a good choice when you feel like something cool and clever.
Bengt Hallberg (piano, organ, accordion)
Dinah (1957), Kiddin' on the Keys (1960), At Gyllene Cirkeln (1963), Hallberg's Surprise (1987), Spring on the Air (1987), Trio Con Tromba (1985)
Here's a child prodigy for you: the Swedish legend wrote his first jazz tune when he was 13 and recorded with a quintet when he was a high-shool kid of 15. Three years later, in 1951, American Stan getz was on tour and asked the teen to join him for a version onf a Swedish folk song we know as "Dear Old Stockholm". You can hear it on Stan Getz in Stockholm by Stan getz & the Swedish All Stars.
Miles Davis took part in a blindfold test in 1954 where he was played some Hallberg. His reaction: "That pianist really gasses me … I never heard anybody play in a high register like that. So clean, and he swings and plays his own things…” Hallberg was one of those talents who managed to use his classical training to enhance his jazz. He could swing anything – the album Hallberg's Surprise is an effortless mash-up of folk themes, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Paganini, Handel and Chopin. Maybe not for everyone, but you can't help being amazed by how easy he makes this kind of thing sound. Many Swedish players say this record inspired them to take up jazz.
The trio works are my favourites. Dinah is a sparkling album and the cheerful Kiddin'on the Keys, which opens with a playful honky-tonk intro, might well be the one that gets you hooked, while At Gyllene Cirkeln is Swedish cool at its finest. Hallberg wrote a lot of music for films, strings, jazz groups and ballet. His late '80s albums with trumpeter Jan Allan and bassist Georg Riedel, all collected as Trio Con Tromba, were hugely popular. It's four discs' worth of music starting with two short suites for the trio and the Uppsala Chamber Soloists. Third Stream it is, but warm and stylish with a hint of humour.
Hallberg on accordion is very folksy and the organ music is hard to find. The rest is a matter of taste. It's an incredible legacy of great music.
Slide Hampton (trombone)
Sister Salvation (1960), Somethin' Sanctified (1960), Jazz With a Twist (1962), Roots (1985)
He's no relation to Lionel Hampton, but did start his career playing with the the vibraphone legend. You probably won't find Slide, real name Locksley, in the top ten of trombonists. But his playing is clean and uncomplicated – and what he's best remembered for, is his own tunes and arrangements. Penguin Guide is a bit lukewarm, saying for instance that the music on Sister Salvation is "crisply funky and often very intelligent". Not to sound condescending, or anything... Possibly his best, Dedicated to Dizx is missing at the moment and Spirit of the Horn is one for brass fanatics with 14 trombones playing together.
So what else, then? You only have to try Roots to want more from Slide. It's a stellar quintet going flat-out on long, pumping tracks. Some octet albums have reappeared since PG was published and fill the gap between Sister Salvation and the '85 album. This is fairly old-fashioned stuff but full of little modern surprises. The title track on Hi Fi, a mystery album that might be a reissue under a different name, is one of my favourites and Jazz With a Twist includes a cool version of "Mack the Knife". For a big dose of melancholy there's The Thrill is Gone, another album that doesn't appear on any discography.
Sometimes when I listen to this kind of jazz, it makes me feel like an old fart. My wife calls it old-fart music, which doesn't help. But when my self-esteem is a little better, I can enjoy it for the smart, sophisticated music that it is.
Andrew Hill (piano)
Judgment! (1964), Point of Departure (1964)
A few names pop up regularly as major influences or the inspiration for later musicians. Andrew Hill is one of them. He is a highly praised player and composer and a fair number of contemporary pianists seem to take their cue from them.
As it turns out, the Penguin Guide authors have reservations about even some of his best work. Judgment!, for instance, is singled out because of what Bobby Hutcherson – one of my favourite players on one of my favourite jazz instruments, the vibraphone – adds to the mix. He is called “the other neglected giant of modern jazz” (along with Hill). For my amateur ears it sounds as if Hutcherson makes an heroic effort to bind the elements of his leader’s playing into a seamless whole. Hill is constantly running through arpeggios or repeating chords as if he expects this will help him break through to the other side of tradition. There’s a lot of going, but not a lot of getting somewhere.
PG calls Point of Departure one of the “very great albums of the ‘60s”, gives it their highest rating of four stars as well as the crown, their stamp for a personal favourite, and marks it as a key title for any collection. Then they mention Hill’s “determination to build on the example of Monk”, to which my first reaction is “not another one…” The album dips into free jazz, especially when Eric Dolphy lets rip on sax, then retreats again. What caught my fancy was the bumble bee flights of trumpeter Kenny Dorham and the tireless, crisp drumming of Tony Williams.
The point of this blog is to write about artist and albums I discovered and liked right away, maybe inspiring you to explore them. So why include Hill? He seems too important to skip and perhaps you should hear him, if only to understand his impact on modern jazz piano. Who knows, you might find your way into these albums.
Bobby Jaspar (sax, flute)
Jazz in Paris: Modern Jazz au Club Saint Germain (1955), Clarinescapade (1956), Jeux de Quartes (1958)
He died terribly young and only a handful of albums are still available. His sax sound was like a Belgian version of Lester Young, Penguin Guide says. So why bother? Because his lines still sound fresh and breezy, also on clarinet, and he doesn’t just play pretty on flute as many others do on this instrument.
On most discs he’s joined by big American names. It’s cool bebop in the best sense – Jaspar is a go-to guy when you want something to lift your spirits. Clarinescapade, made during an American stint, gets the highest mark in PG. For a focus on flute, try Jeux de Quartes. On Apple Music you may have to search for these by album title.