From Working-Class to First Class: Trombonist Pat Hall and Time Remembered
Trombonist Pat Hall was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1965. His upbringing was typical of its time and place - very Michael Moore Roger & Me-era working-class. Indeed, his father worked in the local GM plant. Neither parent was particularly musical, though Pat remembers his father being partial to Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd. "Thanks to the eight-track in his car," Pat says, "that music became imprinted on my brain."
Flint public schools were fairly progressive in the 1970s, due largely to the influence of local philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott. Pat was able to start playing music quite early, in the third grade. "I remember being brought into a room with all the band instruments spread out of big tables for us to play with and choose from," Pat says. "I picked trombone because two of my friends did. I don’t remember even trying anything else on that table."
Hard times hit his family when the auto business went south, forcing them onto public assistance for a period. Hall's parents divorced when he was 10. Pat moved with his mother to Grand Rapids, a very conservative town – so strait-laced, he remembers, "They used to pre-empt Saturday Night Live." It was a tough adjustment.
Although he tried to quit the 'bone a couple of times ("I hated lugging it to and from school"), the cure never took. "It felt so strange without it," he says. He was first exposed to jazz as a freshman in high school, thanks to a pair of upperclassmen who were already gigging. One - fellow trombonist Tony Wolters - introduced Pat to the music of J.J. Johnson. "I was hooked," says Hall. "I refused to listen to another trombone player for several years, though I eventually relented and got into Curtis Fuller, too!"
At age 16, Pat attended a summer session at Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he studied with Tony Lada. Lessons basically consisted of playing Lada's collection of J.J. Johnson transcriptions. "I loved it," says Hall. Pat also played in Herb Pomeroy's and Phil Wilson's big bands. "I played so much my chops were raw. A real learning experience."
After the excitement of Berklee, returning to Michigan for his senior year in high school was a come-down. Hall practiced more than he went to class, and he almost didn't graduate. He began hanging with Wolters again, who by this time was attending Western Michigan State University in Kalamazoo. Wolters hired Hall to play a weekly big band gig. "Even though I was still just a kid, they were very cool," he says. "They treated me like one of their own."
The drag of high school ended. Pat graduated and followed Wolters to Western, where his experience playing with the local jazz pros gave him a leg up on his fellow freshmen. At Western he met saxophonist Jeff Lederer, a grad student at the time. Pat began studying with Lederer, who became a friend and mentor, helping to broaden Hall's horizons. Among other things, "He was the first person to play Ornette Coleman for me," Pat says.
With Lederer, trumpeter John Walsh, and several other of his Michigan cohorts, Pat moved to New York City in 1985. His first gig in the city was in Larry Harlow's salsa band, subbing for "El Loco" Willie Alvarez. It was his last salsa gig for a while: having no clue about the scene, he showed up in a pair of sneakers and a quasi-Flock-of-Seagulls hair-do. Word travelled, and he was effectively blacklisted by NYC salseros for several years (he eventually attained their good graces and would play many hundreds of salsa gigs).
His education continued informally. He began study with the reedist/composer Ken McIntyre and – as important – began working at Tower Records in Greenwich Village. In the '80s and '90s, the jazz department at Tower was a popular day gig for musicians. Pat met such top players as Tim Berne, Melvin Gibbs , Brandon Ross, Ralph Moore, Ras Moshe, Jack DeSalvo, and Wadada Leo Smith. "We opened records and played music for each other all day long, " he says. "My mind was blown, routinely." Hall studied and performed with Smith. He also formed a friendship and musical association with DeSalvo that thrives to this day.
In the early '90s he formed a quintet to play his original compositions with DeSalvo, saxophonist Jorge Sylvester, bassist Jeff Carney, and drummer Bruce Ditmas. The group played the Knitting Factory several times. "I thought I’d really made it," says Hall. He was raising a young family at the time, however. Money was short. He became disillusioned about pursuing a career in jazz. More important was the ability to make a living playing any music at all. He began taking every gig he could get. He played in the house band at a Russian night club in Brooklyn for almost five years, followed by an extended stint with salsero Raulin Rosendo (his fashion faux pas apparently a thing of the distant past). Jazz gigs became few and far between. Indeed, his musical activities essentially ceased entirely for several years, as he pursued a career as a web developer.
Hall returned to music in 2011, co-leading (with saxophonist Chris Kelsey) Happy House, a record devoted to the compositions of Ornette Coleman, for DeSalvo's new Unseen Rain label. Other projects for UR followed, including K3rn3lPaN1C, an album that fuses his love for improvised music with computer-based sound design. He also joined composer Joe Gallant's Illuminati Orchestra, an unconventional big band that plays the leaders original compositions and arrangements of songs made famous by The Grateful Dead.
Hall's most recent project is Time Remembered: The Music of Bill Evans. It's unusual as Evans tributes go, principally in that it strips the tunes of their composer-imposed austerity. Pat takes a contrary approach. First, there's his choice of instrumentation – in place of piano and upright bass, he uses Greg "Organ Monk" Lewis on Hammond B3, with Marvin Sewell on guitar and Mike Campenni on drums. Second, there's the overriding aesthetic – chance-taking is the order of the day, with an emphasis on swing, which always lay at the core of Evans's music. "How can you get to the depths of his stillness, his subtlety?," Hall asks. "Anybody would come up short. But if you could make it swing? Start there." That's not all. "What if you didn’t have a piano at all? What if you recast it with a funky, swinging organ trio!? I love playing with organ! Trombone and organ could sound great together. This could work!" In fact, the project was so much fun in the making, Pat, Lewis, Sewell, and Campenni intend to make it an ongoing project.
It's a first-class effort, on a level of spirit, ingenuity, and musicianship with the best modern jazz now being played. The little kid from Flint who almost gave up the trombone because it was hard to carry has matured into into a superlative artist gifted with unique insight into the possibilities of his instrument. With Time Remembered: The Music of Bill Evans, Pat Hall demonstrates how that insight extends to music of one of jazz's great individualists.