When Charlie Haden died on July 11, 2014, at age 76, the jazz world lost one of its most pivotal acoustic bassists. The same, in relationship to the electric guitar, should be said for Jim Hall, who passed on December 10, 2013, at 83. Each contributed to some of the greatest recordings of modern jazz. Haden assisted the birth of free jazz in the Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s and early 60s; Hall was there for the 1957 debut of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the 1962 Sonny Rollins milestone The Bridge, and the 1962 Undercurrents duo LP with pianist Bill Evans. This meeting at the 1990 Montreal International Jazz Festival reiterates that Haden and Hall were masters of the duet.
Upon Haden’s death, I surveyed a big sampling of his recordings from the past 55 years, from 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come with Coleman to this year’s duet release, Last Dance, from 2007 sessions with Keith Jarrett. No matter whom he was playing with—John Coltrane, Carla Bley, Pat Metheny, Rickie Lee Jones, Abbey Lincoln, his Liberation Music Orchestra, his Quartet West, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, or his gifted offspring (son Josh and triplet daughters Rachel, Tanya, and Petra on 2008’s countrified Rambling Boy)—Haden’s bass lines were unmistakable, a resonant, emotionally pregnant pulse that coursed through any idiom with the same stalwart equanimity. His may have been the most identifiable voice on an instrument that has been the vehicle of such distinct personalities as Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland, and William Parker. Again, the same goes for Hall, whose axe has been wielded by such masters as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Derek Bailey, and Bill Frisell (perhaps Hall’s most explicit if oblique heir).
These eight songs, preserved in exquisite sonic detail—warm and sculpted from top to bottom, filling up huge but keenly defined aural space— are an unexpected bonanza for lovers of pure melody, improvised harmony, and the radiant sunset tones that these two men perfected on their respective instruments. The repertoire includes Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” Hoagy Carmichael’s and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” “Body and Soul” (the standard of standards), Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” and originals from both Haden and Hall. Haden was the deeper composer, and his pieces, “First Song” and “In the Moment,” touch the poles of spirituality (bordering on sentimentality) and heady abstraction (pushing Hall into his freest improvisations) that demarcated, but never limited, the range of his playing. Hall’s two pieces, “Down from Antigua” and “Big Blues,” are earthier and more playful. On the first, the guitarist paints the sky with harmonics and then, as Haden answers him with low-and high-register interpretations of the melody, embarks on a voyage of syncopated, orchestral strumming that picks up momentum and creates surging waves upon which the bassist occasionally bounces like a child jumping on his bed. Glee surfaces here as if it cannot help itself. Unrestrained joy may not be the predominant mood of this set, but it is one of the many signposts these two masters left us on the path of making great music and realizing the potential of human creativity.