Jim Hall in Varying Degrees

Dempsey-Ferguson at Smalls

Jim Hall was featured on the premiere recording of John Lewis’s “Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West” in 1956.  It’s the subtitle on Grand Encounter, which Lewis made for Pacific Jazz in Los Angeles.  (We’ll hear Grand Encounter in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.) The tune, an enchanting blues, alludes to the birthplaces of the five participants on the session: Easterners Hall (Buffalo) and Percy Heath (Philadelphia); Westerners Lewis (Albuquerque), Bill Perkins (San Francisco) and Chico Hamilton (Los Angeles).  Lewis introduced the piece into The Modern Jazz Quartet’s repertoire at the Newport Jazz Festival that summer. In a New Yorker article about the MJQ a year later, Whitney Balliett coupled it with “Django,” Lewis’s elegy for Django Reinhardt, as works whose “graceful melancholy…have already become indestructible.”

Leland Bell JIM HALL Charcoal on Paper 1979 ( 25 x 18.75 inches)

Leland Bell JIM HALL Charcoal on Paper 1979 ( 25 x 18.75 inches)

Hall enjoyed even greater prominence on a quartet version of “Two Degrees East” that Lewis made for his 1960 Atlantic album, The Wonderful World of Jazz.

The guitarist also played the tune in 1959 with the Paul Desmond Quartet on First Time Again, an album featuring the MJQ’s rhythm section of Percy Heath and Connie Kay. And he’s seen here with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and bassist Buddy Clark on a 1959 concert performance of the Lewis original in Italy. That’s Norman Granz introducing the trio. The shadowy effects on this footage smack of bad neo-noir.

Hall, who died in December, continues to resonate in my world. Last week, I hosted a screening of the documentary Jim Hall: A Life in Progress at Amherst Cinema. And for last night’s Jazz a la Mode feature on Cole Porter, Hall was heard with Paul Desmond playing “I Get a Kick Out of You” and with Sonny Rollins on “You Do Something to Me.”

On Saturday night at Smalls Jazz Club in New York, I was delighted to hear guitarist Tom Dempsey and bassist Tim Ferguson playing what proved to be an informal tribute to Hall. Their quartet includes tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and Eliot Zigmond, the veteran drummer who played with Hall and spent three years with the Bill Evans Trio. The opening set included Hall’s original, “Waltz New,” two standards often played by the guitarist, “I Hear a Rhapsody” and “Skylark,” and the Ron Carter original, “Receipt, Please,” which premiered on the bassist’s 1972 recording with Hall, Alone Together.  It’s a tune that deserves more prominence.

The Dempsey-Ferguson Quartet released an impressive debut on Planet Arts in 2012, Beautiful Friendship, and Saturday’s beautifully-programmed sets built on that solid foundation. This is my idea of state-of-the-art jazz.  Frahm swings hard, and his expressiveness and harmonic ingenuity give his playing a strong personal identity that comes through in the wide variety of settings in which he works.  Dempsey matches him as a commanding, front-line soloist.  He studied at Rutgers with Ted Dunbar, the late guitarist whom I often heard at Jazz in July at UMass.  Whenever I hear Dunbar’s name I think of the sublime duo recording he made with Kenny Barron on “Blue Monk” in 1973.  Hear it here. The group played Dempsey’s original, “Ted’s Groove,” in his memory. Ferguson announced that they’ll eventually record the material played before the packed house at Smalls. I can’t wait. Meanwhile, here’s Dempsey, Ferguson, and company performing “50-21,” the Thad Jones original that’s heard on Beautiful Friendship.

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