Jimmy Giuffre – Decades Ahead Of His Time

Here’s a fascinating series of  articles highlighting the achievements of jazz visionary Jimmy Giuffre.

albumcoverJimmyGiuffre3-1961-ECM

Visionary Jazz, October 13, 2001, by N. Dorward

This reissue doubles up two Verve albums recorded by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, Fusion & Thesis. Both were recorded in 1961, & it’s remarkable to think of that year in jazz: consider, for instance, that Eric Dolphy & Booker Little recorded a live date for Prestige at the Five Spot in July of that year; Coltrane played the Vanguard in November, yielding Live at the Village Vanguard & Impressions; the Bill Evans trio with La Faro had recorded two albums’ worth of material in June for Riverside; Cecil Taylor recorded a large amount for Candid early in the year; Lee Konitz recorded Motion; Ornette Coleman had just rounded off his Atlantic output with the magnificent Ornette! & the lesser Ornette on Tenor. All of these recordings were to prove influential, some of them (Coltrane and Evans) extremely so; & yet despite the fact that Giuffre’s trio hardly met with equal success or acclaim, one might claim these two recordings for Verve as in their way equally influential on the course of jazz. Though Giuffre’s trio didn’t have much impact in the U.S., it met with a warmer critical reception in Europe, & its example proved highly influential on the development of jazz in Europe, especially in the creation of a free jazz (or free improvisation) that was quiet, reflective, & as considerable remove from the high-volume, “blacker” free jazz associated with the ESP & Impulse labels. ECM’s founder Manfred Eicher was a great admirer of Giuffre’s work, & it’s fitting that three decades later he should reissue these two discs, which still sound quietly visionary.

One characteristic that defines almost all the experimentation in forward-looking jazz of circa 1960 is the desire to replace the conventional idea of the “soloist” with a much greater & more democratic role for “accompanists.” Think, in particular, of emphasis on three-way dialogue in Bill Evans’ trio; or the development in Coltrane’s music of the drummer’s role, so that rather than conventional solo-and-accompaniment, Jones & Coltrane engage in furious, combative dialogue; or the nascent “harmolodics” of Coleman’s quartet. Giuffre’s trio music is very much part of this line of inquiry: both the pianist Paul Bley & the bass player Steve Swallow are forceful personalities, & the music is strikingly nonhierarchical: the divisions between “solo” and “accompaniment” are often blurred.

Of the two albums, I think the second is considerably the more engaging. (As with Bill Evans’ trio with La Faro, the music was developing so quickly that each album sounds very different from the last: neither of these albums sound much like Free Fall, the 3rd and last disc they recorded [for Columbia].) The first is a touch dry & too unvaryingly slow, mostly developing through a series of carefully paced, almost static harmonies. It’s nonetheless worth a close listen. The 2nd album, Thesis, is truly a marvel: it opens with Carla Bley’s “Ictus”, which issues with a clatter from the instruments & then breaks free, into completely open space. One thing I like about this album in particular is the pacing & dynamics: sometimes, for instance, the trio introduces a brief meditative pause before the restatement of the head after the solos. Throughout the album, Bley & Giuffre draw unconventional sounds out of their instruments: Bley works with the interior of the piano, while Giuffre sometimes produces un-pitched breath-noises from his clarinet. Swallow (only 20 years old at the time!) is commanding throughout both albums, & he’s sometimes the “lead” voice—for instance, he’s given the statement of the melody on “Goodbye” (the one standard performed here: listeners should check out Bley’s recent disc Not Two, Not One, which has a theme-less improvisation which sounds to me like it’s based on this tune). Swallow often gives the music a strong push & an air of tension exactly when one expects it to become reflective: check out, for instance, his work on “Afternoon”.

This is music that still sounds sui generis. It’s not music that grabs the listener forcefully: it’s altogether more subtle & insidious. The one album of the period it does seem related to, oddly enough, is Kind of Blue—there are a few points where Bley’s playing suggests “Blue in Green” or “Flamenco Sketches”. Like that album, 1961 is notable as a turn away from the high volume & brash pyrotechnics of contemporary hard bop, to something much more oblique & atmospheric. 1961 is a much more “difficult” album than Davis’s masterpiece, of course, and many jazz fans will find it too un-swinging, too mysterious or too far from bop & post-bop tenets (though they would be missing the fact that swing & the blues are very much present here, just much more obliquely expressed). But I’d still claim this as one of the essential postwar jazz albums. Essential listening. Fans of this album will also want to listen to the trio’s 1962 album Free Fall (which is considerably more difficult music than these two dates, stepping out into complete atonality & freedom). The group also reformed in 1989 & has recorded several new albums. I would also recommend Time Will Tell, a disc on ECM featuring Evan Parker, Paul Bley & Barre Phillips performing music that is overtly influenced by Giuffre’s work (Phillips was Swallow’s replacement in the trio); & Lee Konitz’s Rhapsody, which has one track, nearly 20 minutes long, which is a theme-less improvisation on “All the Things You Are” by Konitz, Giuffre, Bley & Gary Peacock.

Paving the Way June 12, 2003, by  Christopher Forbes

The cool movement in jazz is often considered a dead end musically. By the late ’50s the Hard Bop movement had become dominant in the jazz world, leaving once central musicians such as Jimmy Giuffre and Gerry Mulligan out of the mainstream. Then the free jazz movement erupted, partly as a reaction to the hard boppers. But Ornette, Coltrane and the like were far removed from the cerebral styling of the cool musicians, so once again, the spirit of the times seemed against them. As a result, many cool school musicians struggled in the early ’60s to find a way to accommodate these new styles, while keeping up their interests. Much of this music is forgotten now, but at least in the case of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, there is much treasure in this work.

Giuffre had been leading a drummer-less group since the mid ’50s, often featuring Jim Hall on guitar. But in 1961 he formed a new group with Paul Bley on the piano and a 19-year-old Steve Swallow on bass. They recorded the two albums on this disc for Verve, the first as Fusion and the second as Thesis. Listening to them in chronological order, you can hear the group getting progressively freer. This is chamber jazz at it’s most vital. The first album features tunes by Giuffre and by Bley’s then-wife Carla. The sound is a premonition of the ECM style that Manfred Eichter would develop in the 70s…lyrical, gently swinging at times, modal but floating in and out of tonality. The compositions themselves are strong, focusing on unusual harmonies underpinning cleverly concealed traditional song structures. Improvisation is often collective with a gentle trading of lines between Giuffre and Bley. Swallow is an even voice here. Occasionally he walks lines, but more often he improvises subtle counterpoint to the lines of the piano and clarinet. Bley is stunning. He has discovered his trademark spare dissonant harmony, and his lyricism is ecstatic. You can hear that he was an overwhelming influence on many later pianists, Keith Jarrett not the least.

Thesis is an even more far ranging album. Though the recording does have plenty of cerebral “bop” numbers, the entire approach to improvising is even freer than on the earlier disc. In many tunes, particularly the opening “Ictus,” tonality disappears altogether. Bley and Guiffre experiment on their instruments, coaxing unusual tones out of them. Even the more conventional tunes seem somehow free of preplanning. An ostinato might lead to a dark passage with unusual chords or scales through in. Dissonance is used subtly but effectively. This is not music that makes its impact through groove or energy. Its pleasures are subtle and you have to listen closely for the rewards. But this is passionate music, passionate in its understatement. Every note is pregnant with meaning.

This work has nearly been lost. Verve had no compelling reason to re-release it, as it never made a huge impact when first released, at least in the US. However, it was devoured by Europeans, not the least Manfred Eichter. It is much to the ECM guru’s credit that he brought this out again. By doing so he acknowledges his tremendous debt to these musicians. If you like your music adventurous but subtle, you should definitely get this album, and the subsequent Guiffre 3 album, Free Fall on Sony. Listened to side by side, these three recording paint a picture of three top musicians in transition to what would be their mature styles.

Delicate filigree creations – sublime & awesome January 31, 2004, by IrishGit

When Jimmy Giuffre broke away from the straightjacket of white West Coast Jazz in the mid-’fifties he went on to produce a series of albums experimenting with drummer-less trios. In fact he did a wonderful album just before this series using a quartet of reeds/trumpet/bass/drums where the drums are not used rhythmically at all (Tangents in Jazz—long unavailable except on the Mosaic 6 CD set). Giuffre had always felt uncomfortable as a straight jazz improviser—he needed the space & freedom to explore ideas & sounds as they cropped up in order to express himself fully, & found the thrust of a good rhythm section too restricting—he didn’t want to ride the beating drum—his rhythmic sense was more dynamic & extreme. This trio with Bley & Swallow is where he first really comes into his own as composer, improviser & leader. The two albums on this release (Fusion & Thesis) were the trio’s first two recordings done only a few months apart in New York 1961. Also available by this trio are the seminal Free Fall (1962) & two wonderful live albums—Emphasis & Flight—recorded in Germany late 1961 (recently released on HatArt as a double CD). The remit of the trio really was to reinvent music—to take it apart piece by piece & reconstruct it afresh, making each component vibrate with its own independence whilst relating to other components with a new delicate vitality. Each instrument is also treated as a component in this web of interactions—each played with restraint & sensitivity—leaving much space around each other (bringing to mind Cage’s aphorism—”love is the space you leave around the loved one”)—listening as attentively as creating—creative listening. Not only was this group investigating the various components of music but they were also acutely aware & sensitive to the dynamics of creating as a threesome—as a trio—in fact on the later album “Free Fall” there are duets & solo pieces as well—all sounding very different in character. The overall feel of these recordings is of intense & intelligent inquiry—the more intense it gets the quieter it becomes. The music is not really jazz—it’s as much influenced by European atonal music—especially that of Berg & Webern—as it is Armstrong or Parker—in fact in the sleeve notes to Free Fall Giuffre states “Given: the urge to enter new realms, glimpse other dimensions, reach the absolute. Given: the visions received from thinking on such things as . . . gravity, Monk, electricity, time, space, the micro-cosmos, leaves, chemistry, power, gods, white-hot heat, asteroids, love, eternity, Einstein, Rollins, Evans, the heartbeat, pain, Delius, Scherchen, Art, overtones, the prehistoric, La Violette, wife, life, voids, Berg, Bird, the universe. . . .” This may sound like pretentious youthful enthusiasm but in fact it is all clearly audible in the music (Giuffre was, after all, a mature 40 years old when he made these albums)—La Violette, by the way, was Giuffre’s composition teacher. Whilst Free Fall may be this trios best & most intense deconstruction (& final—no one would record them afterwards)—these two albums—Fusion & Thesis—are the more listenable—softer (they’ve been given a little ECM reverb unfortunately)—transition recordings that still vibrate strongly with the intelligence, generosity, courage & commitment with which they were made.

Free Fall influenced the whole European free improvisation movement enormously, whereas these recordings influenced the ECM sound just as much (hence Manfred Eicher’s insistence to pay homage by releasing them on his label). Given how important this trio was & is, then surely it’s time we had everything they ever recorded available to us—even fluffed takes.

In short this trio is, along with Evans/LaFaro/Motian, the best in jazz, & this album set is their most attractive recording—sublime & awesome.


 

About jesswaid

Currently, I write police procedural novels with the stories taking place in Hollywood during the early 1960s; a period when I was a street cop there. I've moved to Mexico to be closer to my hobby of studying Mexican history. My friend and fellow author, Professor Michael Hogan, is my mentor. I am planning to write a three-part epic story that takes place in the mid-nineteenth century. What has inspired me was hearing about Los Ninos Heroes, martyrs of the Battle of Chapultepec. Also, my father was born in Concordia, Mexico and knowing his family history is an added incentive.

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