Hall's Balls

May 12, 1999 at 12:00 am

What could prompt a comparison between these re-releases of sets by Paul Desmond, ethereally cool romanticist of the alto sax, and Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone extrovert and colossus for the past five decades? Recorded a year apart (1963 and 1964), the sessions share little in the way of overall conception, except for one telling presence: that of guitarist Jim Hall, the jazz voice on his instrument at the time and, arguably, still top dog.

Desmond enters the canon on the strength of his smoky sensitivity, limpid tone and uncanny, laissez-faire sense of swing. Here he out-relaxes Stan Getz in his takes on bossa nova – particularly "Embarcadero" and "Samba de Orpheu" – and on ballads he inhabits an inner sanctum of beauty reserved for the likes of Ben Webster and Lester Young. Hall’s delicately withheld chords introduce the languorous "Nancy," and a moment later Desmond comes dancing through the melody into an architectural solo balanced on the head of a pin. Hall, whether comping behind a soloist or crafting his own marvels, is inventive in the most disarmingly subtle ways.

The key words for Rollins have always been hard bop, heat-seeking virtuosity and kick-ass bravado. This set has him tackling world-class standards like "Night and Day" and "My One and Only Love" with daredevil humor. But on "My Ship," Hall lays out an impeccable intro for Rollins’ aria-like melody statement, contributes a condensed tone poem of his own, then enters into a one-on-one with the leader that will make you remember to pick up their five-star collaboration, Sonny Rollins – The Quartets Featuring Jim Hall (RCA-Bluebird), next time you’re able. And since CD releases of old LPs often make lost treasures available for the first time, like the exquisitely spacious alternate take here of "Trav’lin’ Light" – at, in 1964, an unheard-of 12 minutes, 44 seconds – we get to imagine what might have been had Rollins, Hall, Herbie Hancock (piano), Dave Izenson (bass), et al., been given more of this kind of free reign to stretch out.