CAMBRIDGE -- Guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Dave Holland are two of jazz's finest string players. They have worked over the years with a pantheon of greats, from mainstream icons such as Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis to avant-garde avatars Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Today they are respected bandleaders in their own right.
On Thursday night at the Real Deal Jazz Club, the two opened a rare three-night stand as a duo, presenting a set of chamber jazz tunes that were alternately thorny and lyrical but always engaging.
To begin, the owlish Hall, slightly hunched over his guitar, plucked a few spare, exploratory chords. His signature muted tone gleamed like a distant bright light on a murky night.
Holland, slim and elegant behind his bass, joined Hall in a speechlike musical dialogue, displaying his rich, woody, centered sound.
A familiar tune emerged as Hall's guitar circled the melody of "My Funny Valentine," the Rodgers and Hart standard. Holland outlined the tune's chords with a bass figure that seemed to skip and run as much as walk. Hall's lines slipped away from the song's center of gravity. Gradually, he switched to ringing chords that became a rhythmic underpinning for a Holland solo -- an impeccable set of variations on the theme.
It was a shifting, mercurial set, as each tune's melody received little more than a peck on the cheek before being left behind. Neither Hall nor Holland settled into the role of soloist or accompanist for long, maintaining a delicately calibrated seesaw of foreground and background.
Hall's "End the Beguine," placed angular, dissonant guitar phrases against a static bass figure. Holland's "Blues for C.M.," dedicated to Charles Mingus, convincingly evoked the metier of that master bassist.
On "All the Things You Are," the Jerome Kern standard that has inspired generations of improvisers, Hall and Holland opened with a loose, uncoordinated gait, then locked into a tight, double-time, swing feel.
On "Ario," Holland's paean to Rio de Janeiro, Hall stated the melody with his patented late-night lyricism, then switched to sweetly dissonant chords while Holland played a beautiful, melodic solo. At times, Hall strummed with so little amplification that the sound of pick against strings became de facto percussion.
The set's final number was Hall's 16-bar blues "Careful." Holland played long, sliding phrases, punctuated by slaps against the fretboard. Hall's theme statement was paradoxically rubbery and angular.
As the two locked in and dug deeper and deeper into the loping beat, their exhilaration was palpable. When the tune came to a skittering halt, Hall maintained his wry deadpan, but Holland's face broke into a wide, satisfied grin.