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JAZZ | Spotlight

Two Influential Guitarists Show Why They're in the Vanguard

October 01, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Ask jazz guitarists to name the players who have influenced them the most, and it's a fair bet that Jim Hall's name will turn up in the top five. He is, after all, a player who has worked effectively with Jimmy Giuffre's adventurous trio, in Sonny Rollins' demanding improvisational universe, with Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond and dozens of others. No wonder his subtly understated but deeply personal style has been so admired and imitated.

In "Grand Slam: Live at the Reggattabar" (*** 1/2, Telarc Jazz), Hall performs in tandem with yet another saxophonist, the ebullient Joe Lovano (with the superlative support of bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash). Given the brawny muscularity of the Lovano style, the Rollins-Hall efforts might appear to be a logical model, but the performances reach across a surprisingly broad stylistic expanse, with each participant playing at a high level.

"Slam," the opening track, is a bit reminiscent of the Giuffre ensemble in the way Hall has structured free-flowing individual passages. "Borders" has a similarly adventurous quality, and triggers one of Hall's most edgily probing solos, followed by a similarly extraordinary effort from Mraz. "Say Hello to Calypso," however, instantly recalls Rollins' "St. Thomas," and "Blackwell's Message"--which features Lovano's dark-grained bass clarinet--is a tribute to drummer Ed Blackwell. Like Hall's earlier duo album with Pat Metheny, the message here is that, at 69, he continues to play and compose with a creative energy that is sure to sustain his quietly subtle presence as a major jazz influence.

One could also make a pretty good case for John McLaughlin as an influence in a somewhat different style. Like Hall, McLaughlin has never been content to be easily categorized, intentionally casting his musical net widely.

On Tuesday, two live McLaughlin recordings will arrive. "The Believer" (*** 1/2, Verve) is the latest incarnation of McLaughlin's '70s group, Shakti, here labeled Remember Shakti.

The connections between jazz and Indian classical music have often led to efforts to combine the two, not always with great success. But McLaughlin's new group brings it off, in part due to tabla player Zakir Hussain's capacity to use the complexities of the Indian percussion system in a fashion that generates a kind of jazz-tinged swing.

Equally important, McLaughlin's pieces--"Anna," "Finding the Way," "Lotus Feet," etc.--make use of raga-like scales and occasionally offbeat meters without attempting to actually function within the far more demanding framework of Indian classical music. But when McLaughlin interacts with the remarkable electric mandolin of U. Shrinivas and ghatam/kanjira player V. Selvaganesh, the music quickly defies category, shifting easily from unexpected bursts of funk-like blues to wildly flying, rapid note sequences that owe as much to bebop as they do to Indian music.

The second McLaughlin album, "The Heart of Things Live In Paris" (***, Verve), was recorded in 1998--essentially an in-concert version of material from the 1997 release "The Heart of Things," with most of the same musicians present. The three pieces included from the original studio effort are "Acid Jazz," "Seven Sister" and "Fallen Angels," with three added works--"Tony" (dedicated to drummer Tony Williams), "The Divide" (by saxophonist Gary Thomas) and "Mother Tongues."

This is fusion McLaughlin, an extension of the music he has played with Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams' Lifetime and numerous other combinations since the '70s. But with a group that includes Thomas, pianist Otmaro Ruiz, bassist Matthew Garrison, percussionist Victor Williams and drummer Dennis Chambers, the recording reveals no sign of aging by McLaughlin--now 58 and still capable of producing genre-defining contemporary jazz.

Speaking of guitar influences, many young, especially acoustic, players, are drawn to the work of such between-the-cracks eclectics as John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges and others. Richard Leo Johnson, whose 12-string playing really is beyond definition, nonetheless continues to do fascinating work in the same vague arena, some of it tinged with the spirit and the swing of jazz. His "Language" (***, Blue Note) places him in some attractive instrumental settings, in some cases with briskly swinging results. Other pieces emphasize his remarkable technique and the colorful, orchestral-like sound textures he generates from his instrument.

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