Reviews of Recent Recordings
The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4
In his lifetime, Jimmy Giuffre may not have been a trouble maker, or a rabble rouser, as say Albert Ayler was or Ornette Coleman had been, but he wasn’t exactly a living conformist. Giuffre in effect dared to be different from those who were different. In the early ‘60s, when jazz was coasting on tried and true hard bop recipes, and struggling with the nascent free jazz movement, Giuffre simply did not belong to either camp: Though he was from Texas and played tenor saxophone, he did not have the growl or the punch of a “Texas tenor.” Instead, the music of his late ‘50s trios with Jim Hall had a country flavor that was removed from hard bop and hip funky jazz grooves.
Giuffre severed his ties from the “vertical prisons” (as he called the bop tradition) with his now crucial trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow in the early ‘60s, preferring a chamber music-like “quiet intensity,” putting him also at odds with free jazz. Exclusively playing clarinet and dispensing with drums altogether was a gutsy move, magnified by his almost total abandonment of jazz conventions. While Giuffre was not alone in regards to the latter, the result was unique.
For decades, there was a nine-year discographical gap between the three studio albums with Bley and Swallow (Fusion, Thesis and Free Fall, the first two reissued by ECM) and the two early ‘70s bass-and-drums trio albums on Choice. The question thus persisted for years as to what happened to him and his music in that barren decade, which ironically was such a watershed for a host of other emerging voices belonging to the jazz “avant-garde?” In 2000, a surprise issue turned up on Jimmy Giuffre – 23 février 1960, 27 février 1965 (Trema), the latter date referencing the previously undocumented unit with pianist Don Friedman and bassist Barre Phillips, featuring Giuffre on tenor sax! What emerges from this concert is ... somewhat disconcerting. The audience of 1965, obviously expecting some vintage Giuffre, like a return to compositions like “The Train and the River,” his most well-known tune since “Four Brothers,” was in for a rude surprise. By then, Giuffre and his men seemed to have been taking the music of his early ‘60s trio one step further, dissolving tonality, blowing free choruses and interacting in ways for which European jazz audiences were totally unprepared. The jeering and whistling that occurs in the last numbers is quite unsettling.
While that recording filled a bit of the gap in Giuffre’s lost decade, it seemed to be the end of the story. But just a month or so ago, New York Concerts, a two-disc set, was released. Each disc contains a single concert performance, both taped in 1965 at two long-gone halls: the Wollman auditorium of Columbia University (demolished) and Judson Hall (reconverted). Like the Trema side, this set turns up a couple more surprises, the first being the return of a drummer into the fold, Joe Chambers, who plays on both discs. Two bassists share duties here, Richard Davis for the Wollman set (before a live audience), and Barre Phillips for the Judson set (with no audience). Don Friedman is also heard on piano, but only on the latter performance.
It is quite a tribute to an artist to say that his work of fifty years ago comes across as if it were done two weeks ago. The artistry displayed here stands up to anything produced in today’s improvised music scene, even though there is still one jazz component left intact here: the thematic statements that bookend each piece. But these heads were not catchy melodies, but angular lines that break off suddenly and move on rapidly to other places (think of Carla Bley’s “Ictus,” heard on the Thesis album, it serves as a kind of blueprint for most of the pieces played here). Gone are the harmonic structures and their re-occurrences in ordered cycles. Instead, the themes are more like jump off points, some are even restated within a piece, as if to rally the group for another round of exchanges. But the compositions are rather accessory to the developments, maybe even dispensable.
Another fascinating aspect of these concerts are the overlaps in material: Four new pieces are heard on each record (“Syncopate”, “Quadrangle”, “Drive” and “Angles”), titles that indeed reveal something of their nature. One tune from the Bley-Swallow trio albums resurfaces here (“Cry, Want”), while “Three Bars in One” is also new. One cover appears – Ornette’s relatively obscure “Crossroads.”
Unquestionably, this music builds on the daring outing that Free Fall was in 1962, and clearly moves further afield, with Giuffre letting his cavernous-sounding tenor bellow from top to bottom; with edgy and nervous gestures, he can take the lead, then retreat some and “comp” behind the bass or piano. Elsewhere, he splits tones (prefiguring some of John Butcher’s work), produces harmonics from the lowest register, and resorts to some frulatto (flutter tonguing), techniques hardly exploited by his contemporaries, notwithstanding some contemporary music saxophone specialists of that era.
Not to be overlooked either is his clarinet, an instrument for which he invented an approach and a sound that simply did not exist before him, quite an accomplishment in itself in view of a long lineage of licorice stick players who greatly contributed to jazz into the ‘50s. Particularly poignant are his piercing wails, such as on “Cry Want,” whose bluesy theme is tailored to the instrument’s plaintive sound.
The overlap of compositions between the two sets is in fact quite revelatory here, with Friedman’s appearance on the second disc changing things considerably, as some of those tracks in common stretch out (the quartet session lasts 50 minutes, the trio clocks in at 36). The piano’s presence may seem odd because of Giuffre’s marked preference for contrapuntal writing and playing (a lesson he seems to have retained from his composition teacher Wesley Laviolette). But, Friedman often plays independent lines with each hand instead of just laying down chords.
While these 1965 recordings are very much of their time, the sense of vision they exhibit allows them to stand the test of time, which is one reason why Giuffre is a figure worthy of tribute albums, even though “Brothers” and “Train’ are his only compositions that have found their way into the broader jazz repertoire.
Tribute albums are dicey propositions, particularly when the subject is as iconoclastic as Giuffre. If a tribute merely replicates, like classical music, they come off as museum pieces (and to quote the late Swiss filmmaker Eric Rohmer: “The museum is where you go and check out things that are not be done anymore.”) In other instances, the music of the dedicatee is simply reworked or re-arranged in different or unfamiliar contexts, albeit to varying degrees of success. Finally, there are approaches that are more tangential, where the spirit of a given music serves as the base for the project. But whatever strategy is taken, such tributes are the product of craftsmen, those who precisely work on existing bodies of knowledge. When listening to Dave Douglas’ Riverside, we are faced with a music that is more evocative than provocative.
Save for Giuffre’s “Train,” dressed up here as a jaunty romp, the remaining compositions are all new, eight by the trumpeter, and a pair by tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas (who switches to clarinet on two cuts). Steve Swallow provides immeasurable continuity with the Giuffre legacy, as well as a fluid foundation with his unique electric bass guitar sound; additionally, Swallow hooks up nicely with drummer Jim Doxas (which invites calling the quartet The Two Brothers band), assuring an unwavering flow in the proceedings. The cohesion in the band is attributable to its genesis almost a decade ago, when the brothers tried to get Douglas to join their then trio, By-Product, at a time when the McGill graduates were first cutting their teeth on their home turf in Montreal. Logistical snags shelved the idea, but in the summer of 2012, all fell into place, this recording taking place in Toronto, on the heels of live performances in that city and their own town.
This album draws on late ‘50s Giuffre, rather than the more daring period that ensued. By and large, there is a sing-songy tunefulness to most pieces, and a laid back feel, most notably in the final 12-minute cut of two compositions by Chet Doxas that best display that virtue of quiet intensity, both horn players building up their solos to effective climaxes. Douglas’s trumpet displays are virtuosic in several spots, even inspired. Curiously though (at least for him), he resorts to quoting tunes (in the first track fleetingly to Ornette, but more extensively on “No Good Without You” – clearly written on the changes of “All of Me”, whose melody he spells out at length).
Riverside fits within the lineage of Douglas’s previous tributes to jazz masters like Booker Little, Wayne Shorter, and Mary Lou Williams, as it is more of a passing nod to Giuffre than an explicit homage. The title of the album reinforces this, as it has no real connection with the Texan; Douglas claimed the tenorist came up with the title in a brainstorming session, with Doxas giving Douglas the credit.
In its second half-century, jazz has morphed so much that it would take volumes to discuss the differences between ours and previous eras. A lot has been said already on our post-modern times (and we may well even be “post-post” by now), but if there is one difference worth highlighting in contrast to the “modern” times of yore, it should be the following: Musicians in the past could well afford do one thing and pursue it doggedly, like visionaries have always done; today’s breed, however, wants to do several things concurrently, or else move quickly from one to another, which is certainly a trademark of all craftsmen. Some may bemoan this change, and even if things ain’t what they used to be, we still have to deal with it and take it on its own terms.