IN THE MEDIA
Tammy Hall’s soulful piano playing makes her an essential Bay Area accompanist by Andrew Gilbert
It was well after midnight when Tammy Hall got home from a mid-July gig and decided to check her email before turning in for the night. Amid the usual mix of messages from friends and colleagues the San Francisco pianist spotted the name Laurie Anderson.
“I only know of one Laurie Anderson, so I opened the email and it said, ‘Hi Tammy, I really love your music. Would you consider playing with me?’ If you heard a scream that night, it was me,” Hall recalls.
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The Soul of Piano Jazz: SF Chronicle Feature On Tammy Hall
"What stands out most is her compelling lyricism. With an uncluttered, telegraphic style marked by her classical training and deep roots in the Baptist church, Hall gracefully combines elegance and grit. " --Andrew Gilbert
THE SOUL OF PIANO JAZZ
Jazz pianist Tammy Hall doesn't look like a troublemaker, but she's been known to instigate a brawl or two.
Over the past decade, she's become one of the region's most sought after accompanists, an essential collaborator with a glittering roster of top jazz, blues and cabaret vocalists such as Denise Perrier, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Frankye Kelly, Veronica Klaus, Connie Champaign and Debbie de Coudreaux. Hall's resourceful piano work is in such demand that some singers end up scrapping over her services.
"We all fight over Tammy," jazz singer Kim Nalley says. "She's put so much soul into every note she plays. And now it's worse than ever, since she's started doing her own thing."
Hall recently stepped into the spotlight with "Blue Divine" (Elfenworks), her debut recording as a leader, featuring nine well-crafted originals and a ravishing version of Jobim's "Se Todos Fossem Iguais a Voce." She celebrates the album's release on Thursday at Jazz at Pearl's, where she'll be joined by bassist Marcus Shelby, drummer Kent Bryson and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz, who also play on the CD. Hall's quartet is also featured June 9 at the Berkeley Public Library's Re-New Orleans Jazz Festival.
After so many years of blending in with other artists as a side musician, Hall seems to have had little trouble finding her own voice. What stands out most on "Blue Divine" is her compelling lyricism. With an uncluttered, telegraphic style marked by her classical training and deep roots in the Baptist church, Hall gracefully combines elegance and grit.
"I think the experience I had accompanying so many wonderful vocalists really helped me to develop as a better instrumentalist," Hall says between sets at Pearl's. "Accompanying isn't difficult, because I had the experience growing up in the church, backing choirs and soloists. But putting out my own record with nine original pieces is really scary. The music is personal anyway, but to have your own compositions out there feels quite exposed."
Hall needn't worry. With her vibrant mix of blues, Latin grooves and exquisite ballads, "Blue Divine" effectively showcases her empathetic sensibility as a player, composer and arranger. She's also well represented on several recent releases, including the self-named debut CD by trumpeter Ellen Seeling's hard-swinging Montclair Women's Big Band, and Nalley's rollicking tribute to Nina Simone, "She Put a Spell on Me" (CE Jazz & Blues).
Both as a vocalist and the owner of Jazz at Pearl's, Nalley has played a key role in spreading the word about Hall's talent. As one of Pearl's house pianists, Hall has worked with a succession of sax greats, including Mel Martin, David "Fathead" Newman and Houston Person, who described her as "one mighty soulful lady." After her performance at Pearl's on Thursday, Hall reunites with Person for his three-night run at the North Beach club starting Friday. And on May 29, Hall holds down the piano chair when Perrier records a live album at Pearl's, with Person as a special guest.
Perrier, a Bay Area musician equally authoritative belting the blues or interpreting American Songbook standards, has worked closely with Hall for more than a decade, including a three-year run in the '90s at Bentley's (now Perry's) in the Park Galleria Hotel in San Francisco.
"Tammy is a very sensitive and passionate player," Perrier says. "As a vocalist, one of the things I like best is that she's a true accompanist. She never gets in the way of your phrasing, which is why she's so popular. She can absorb all of a singer's feelings, and she plays very individually with each of us. Some of us do the same songs, but she listens to you and interprets your delivery. She's been in the background for so long, it's good that people are starting to take notice."
Born and raised in Dallas, Hall got her start as a performer playing in the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. Her mother, an aspiring concert pianist, died when Hall was 1, and her father, who she never knew, played the clubs on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning.
"I seem to be carrying on that legacy," Hall says, noting that she's co-minister of music at the Inner Light Ministry in Soquel.
Raised by both sets of grandparents, she was introduced to jazz by her paternal grandfather, a math professor and film buff who ran a projectionist club where he often screened shorts featuring jazz stars such as Louis Armstrong and Dorothy Donegan. By age 8, Hall was studying classical music, while soaking up the sounds around her, absorbing influences such as Stevie Wonder, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Joe Sample and Oscar Peterson. She won a scholarship to the elite Hockaday School, where she took informal jazz lessons from a sympathetic music teacher.
In 1979, Hall moved to Oakland to attend Mills College on a scholarship, but after two years she left the program, looking to gain experience on the Bay Area jazz scene. She attracted some attention in the mid-'80s with the all-female fusion band Beyond Definitions, but decided to try her luck in Belgium in 1987, settling in Brussels and working the European festival circuit. When she returned to the Bay Area in 1989, she was far more seasoned, and before long won a reputation as an ace accompanist. For 15 years she maintained a hectic schedule, holding down a day job as a law office bookkeeper while playing three or four nights a week. But since 2004 she's been devoting herself to music full time.
"It's been a real roller coaster, but I wouldn't give it up for anything," Hall says. "That's all I want to do. I want you to hear my music and feel good, or just feel, period."