When Dana Hall talks about global connections or musical nuances, his words convey a quiet authority. The drummer's background - which embraced equally intense levels of science and technology alongside music and scholarship - has provided him with a unique perspective on those large and small concepts. And Hall's recent CD debut as a quintet leader, Into The Light
(Origin), shows how he blends those disparate ideas.
Today, Hall is mainly known for directing the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, playing prominent sideman gigs and teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But when he first arrived in the Midwest from Philadelphia in the late '80s, it was to study aerospace engineering and percussion at Iowa State University. Hall went on to help design propulsion systems and aircraft for Boeing, later to give up this potentially lucrative career for a riskier life in jazz, but he stresses the internal affinities.
"A certain interest in the minutia comes from studying engineering, which is helpful when you're performing music," Hall said. "Because you're thinking peripherally - in a circular fashion, rather than just what you're playing or another soloist is playing. And I'm interested in creating formulas to come up with something new and interesting, whether it's a flight mechanics problem or a new harmonic progression."
Hall kept that mindset when he left Seattle-based Boeing for New York in 1991 to complete his music degree at William Patterson University. But he also knew that skills, rather than theories, would open doors on the jazz scene. His abilities became clear as he worked with prominent leaders representing a range of generations: from Betty Carter and Ray Charles to Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman. Although he found these experiences invaluable, Hall felt that a move to Chicago in 1994 would be key to developing his own personality.
"In New York, I could walk down a path and not know where I wanted to go," Hall said. "Be a swinger or on the downtown scene? Down this particular path and play like Milford Graves? Or play like Billy Higgins? Or play like Dana Hall? Moving to Chicago afforded me the opportunity to have that growth."
Chicago's musical community sped up the evolution.
"The first time Von Freeman counted off a fast tempo, no one ever asked me to play that fast before," Hall said. "But I knew he had my back and there was this love, and I never had that in New York."
Numerous opportunities followed - musical and educational. Hall is currently working on his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, where his dissertation is on Philadelphia soul music in the '70s.
"The entire idea of diaspora is central to my thinking about my own music and my own work as a scholar," Hall said. "It's exciting that there's a connection to the music you hear in Senegal to the music that you'd hear in Panama, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. There are rhythmic and harmonic elements that fuse them together. The more I look at the late Teddy Pendergrass or Otis Redding, I get a sense that it's connected to John Coltrane or Fela Kuti."
In particular, Hall points to combinations of complexity and simplicity throughout African music and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. He's after the same ideals on his compositions, like "The Path to Love" from Into The Light.
"There's a singability on the surface, but below the surface there's something going on that has more depth. This sweet and sour, salt and pepper, yin and yang is something I'm trying to illuminate.