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Jimmy Giuffre’s Music Finds New Appreciation – NYTimes.com

Jimmy Giuffre’s Music Finds New Appreciation – NYTimes.com


A rigorous composer, clarinetist and tenor saxophonist, Jimmy Giuffre made a conscientious break from the jazz mainstream in the 1960s; by today’s standards, his music sounds quite modern. Credit Herb Snitzer

It’s anyone’s guess what Jimmy Giuffre was thinking when he improvised the stark, intriguing solo clarinet pieces intended for his 1962 Columbia album, “Free Fall.” Along with the five that made the cut, there were five others that saw the light of day some 35 years later, as bonus tracks on an overdue reissue. Small gems of oblique investigation, they bear titles that seem to hint at Giuffre’s state of mind; among them is one with a lonesome air, played in shadowy subtones, that he called “Time Will Tell.”

That would have made a decent mantra for Mr. Giuffre (pronounced JOO-free), who died in 2008, of complications of Parkinson’s disease. A rigorous composer, clarinetist and tenor saxophonist, he’d had a few tastes of critical and commercial success before “Free Fall,” which also features the bassist Steve Swallow and the pianist Paul Bley, and belongs to the small category of jazz recordings that truly were ahead of their time. Its dismal reception cost Giuffre his recording contract and his momentum: He didn’t make another album for a decade, missing the peak years of the ’60s avant-garde.


Seeking recognition in Europe: In Germany in 1961, from left, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Steve Swallow, Jimmy Giuffre and Juanita Giuffre.Credit Juanita Giuffre

“The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts” (Elemental), due out on Tuesday, is a startling dispatch from that season in exile. Comprising a pair of previously uncirculated live recordings from 1965, it illuminates a murky period in Giuffre’s career. Atypically for him, both sessions feature a drummer, the superbly alert Joe Chambers, who brings a firm rhythmic push without muddying the music’s intent. “They sound great together, just so natural and flowing,” said the trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas. “If they had made a Blue Noterecord, it would be considered one of the big classics of the period.”

The urge is almost irresistible, when discussing Giuffre, to dwell on what might have been. But the new release also encourages some thoughts of what might yet be. It happens to arrive at a moment of growing admiration for Giuffre among current jazz musicians drawn to his chamberlike counterpoint and thoughtfully abstracted form.

There are more of those now than there were even five years ago, when the guitarist Joel Harrison and the drummer George Schuller formed Whirrr, a Giuffre repertory band whose ranks include the trombonist Jacob Garchik and the saxophonist Ohad Talmor. Mr. Douglas, Mr. Swallow and the Doxas brothers (Chet on reeds, Jim on drums) make up Riverside, a Giuffre-inspired quartet that released its self-titled debut album this spring. And the Swiss-born trombonist Samuel Blaser has a sharply realized tribute — “Spring Rain,” featuring the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane — due out next year. “His music sounds like today’s music,” Mr. Blaser said of Giuffre, voicing a common theme.

Born in Dallas in 1921, Giuffre began playing clarinet at the age of 9. He earned a music degree from North Texas State Teachers College, and after a stint in the Army, he established himself as a composer-arranger. “Four Brothers,” which he wrote in 1947 for the Woody Herman Orchestra, became a popular anthem for the band.

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Its central feature — a smoothly blended yet boppish line for the saxophone section — pointed in the direction of West Coast cool jazz. Giuffre took part in that boom, notably as a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, but by the mid-’50s, he had adopted a more purely contrapuntal ideal. “I’ve come to feel increasingly inhibited and frustrated by the insistent pounding of the rhythm section,” he declared in the liner notes to one of his albums, stating his preference for a beat that’s “acknowledged but unsounded.”

He carried that fairly outré conviction forward with a small series of drummerless groups, starting with the Jimmy Giuffre 3, featuring Ralph Peña on bass and Jim Hall on guitar. A subsequent edition, with Hall and the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, appeared in the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” That trio’s intuitive rapport, along with its feel for pastoral Americana and the blues, made it an approachable outlier during jazz’s commercial heyday of the mid to late ’50s — and an influential one since then, with stylistic heirs including the guitarist Bill Frisell.

But it’s the Giuffre 3 with Mr. Bley and Mr. Swallow that present-day musicians cite most often as an influence. Giuffre formed this trio after an encounter with Ornette Coleman in 1959 at the Lenox School of Jazz, a summer program in Massachusetts. Struck not only by Mr. Coleman’s force of sound on saxophone but also by his radically unrestricted notions of tonality and structure, Giuffre abruptly changed his own direction.

“We rehearsed incessantly as a trio,” Mr. Swallow recalled, “and often there was more talking than playing at the rehearsals.” The driving subject was a pursuit of atonality and rhythmic license, and yet Giuffre distributed complete scores for his compositions. “There was this wonderful paradox,” Mr. Swallow said. “The music was wild and woolly on the one hand, and on the other, he was really insistent on the fidelity to the notes on the page, and on a kind of ethic of contrapuntal interrelations that governed the music.”

The trio’s first two albums, released on Verve in 1961 and reissued on ECM just over 30 years later, have a restless elegance, with themes either by Giuffre or Carla Bley, who was married to Mr. Bley at the time. The group received encouragement from contemporary composers like Stockhausen and Cage, and at least a few in the jazz fold saw its music as in tune with that genre. Mr. Chambers, the drummer, said that when he heard “Free Fall,” it connected with the Schoenberg and Webern he’d been studying in college.

Mr. Bley, when asked about the trio’s affinities with classical modernism, replied in an email that the idea was hogwash. (Not his exact wording.) “Giuffre started as a jazz composer and played jazz all his life,” he said. And the music readily supports that interpretation, though jazz audiences didn’t at the time. In a story that Mr. Swallow delights in retelling, the trio played its final gig at a coffeehouse on Bleecker Street, after dividing the earnings from the door and coming up with 35 cents apiece.

Giuffre licked his wounds but kept furthering his concept, even as jazz’s vanguardist energies began to solidify around Mr. Coleman and the expeditious fervor of John Coltrane. Giuffre appeared in “The October Revolution in Jazz,” a pioneering free-jazz festival organized by the trumpeter Bill Dixon in 1964. But revolution, as a cultural and rhetorical strategy, wasn’t really at the heart of his enterprise. The compositions he was playing in 1965 have titles related either to geometry (“Angles,” “Quadrangle”) or movement (“Syncopate,” “Drive”). As a white musician who’d made a conscientious break from the jazz mainstream — and by all accounts, a figure of earnest, gentle introversion — he was crucially out of step with the black nationalist spirit of the age.

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Mr. Chambers, who had recorded with the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and the pianist Andrew Hill, was strongly connected to the African-American jazz pulse, and his work on “The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts” is fine and bracing. The first of the two dates took place in May, a few months after Giuffre’s new trio had been booed at a concert in Paris, playing opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The addition of Mr. Chambers to Giuffre’s band, which otherwise included the pianist Don Friedman and the bassist Barre Phillips, could have been intended as a corrective.

Whatever the case, the quartet — taped without an audience in an auditorium at Columbia University by George Klabin for his student radio show on WKCR — benefits enormously from the presence of drums. “I knew the concept,” Mr. Chambers said, “and I tried to stay out of the way.” But in addition to executing Giuffre’s notated drum parts, which involved great gulps of silence, he brought a sense of smartly grounded propulsion — and implicitly, a link to the evolving post-bop tradition.

Mr. Klabin recorded Giuffre again in September at Judson Hall, across the street from Carnegie Hall, on a concert that also featured the Charles Lloyd Quartet. And while Giuffre kept Mr. Chambers, he used no piano this time, and enlisted the prominent bassist Richard Davis. There are no boos. The music doesn’t quite feel settled — Mr. Davis said he suspects it was the only time he ever worked with Giuffre — but it has an essential gravity. Working with bass and drums, Giuffre favors the tenor, occasionally flashing signs of his admiration for Sonny Rollins. He also includes “Crossroads,” an early piece by Mr. Coleman, offering it like a totem.

“New York Concerts” was produced by Zev Feldman, who acquired the rights from Giuffre’s widow, Juanita, and Mr. Klabin. Along with provoking a reappraisal of Giuffre’s lost decade, it may lead to more of his music being heard. Mr. Friedman said he had already noticed the tide beginning to turn; he has been booked to play a Giuffre tribute with the clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski, on Sept. 13 at the Kitano New York hotel.

There’s probably no single reason that Giuffre, who taught at the New England Conservatory for more than 15 years, couldn’t personally inspire the reverence now found among younger players. Mr. Schuller and Mr. Douglas each had him as a teacher and said they wished they’d known to take advantage of his insights.

“I think what Jimmy was looking to achieve was a particular state of heightened alertness on the bandstand,” Mr. Swallow said, “with a sense of the individual parts and their relationship to the whole.” That sounds a lot like a prescription from the current moment in jazz, which raises a possibility: that for once, at least in this sense, the timing might work out in Giuffre’s favor.




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