Saturday, September 26, 2009

All Around Man

Lexington, Mississippi bluesman Lonnie Pitchford died of AIDS in 1998, a month beyond his 43rd birthday. If you've read the chapter on Pitchford in Robert Nicholson's book Mississippi Blues Today!, you might find it amazing that he lived as long as he did. Nicholson recounts, in jaw-dropping fashion, his unsuccesful attempt to keep up with the hard-living, pleasure-seeking Pitchford for 24 hours. Nicholson's night with Pitchford involved copious amounts of lying and alcohol, refueled by a visit to the bootlegger in the middle of the night. Although Pitchford stayed up until dawn drinking, Nicholson was amazed that he was up at 9:00 AM with a bottle of Colt 45 and Oprah on the TV.

At the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale one year (I don't quite remember which) in the early nineties, Pitchford was all over the place - performing, listening, helping out, wandering around. And every time I saw him, he always seemed pretty drunk. But he was incredibly patient with one of his mentors, Eugene Powell, who recorded before World War II as Sonny Boy Nelson. The very elderly Powell was still able to play sing his blues and play guitar, but was no longer able to tune his instrument. When Pitchford realized that Powell was having trouble, he mounted the stage, tuned his teacher's guitar, and handed it back. Powell, probably acting on instinct, immediately reached out and turned one of the tuning pegs, destroying the younger man's work. Pitchford sighed, took the guitar back, and retuned it.

Pitchford's other mentor was the great Robert Lockwood, Jr., often called "Robert Junior" Lockwood, since his mother was the girlfriend of Robert Johnson. Many bluesmen hung around Robert Johnson and picked up licks and techniques. Lockwood was, however, apparently the only musician whom Johnson taught directly. He learned well, amplified Johnson's lessons (listen to "Talk a Little Walk With Me" from Lockwood's first recording session in 1941), and, years later, passed the lessons on to Lonnie. The beautiful "See See Rider" from Pitchford's only full-length album, All Around Man, illustrates the Lockwood influence on Lonnie's playing.

The name of that Rooster Blues album is appropriate - not only because Pitchford performs Bo Carter's wonderfully dirty song of the same name, but because he covers so many musical bases. When he first came to the attention of the larger blues community, Pitchford was known for two things: his moving, virtuoso performances on the "diddley bow," the one-string guitar, and for his precise and passionate renditions of Robert Johnson's songs. All Around Man presents Pitchford in those two settings, as well as the Robert Lockwood-influenced style mentioned above, the haunting hill country style he apparently learned from his father, as a modern blues electric guitarist in front of a band, and even as a jazz/funk soloist (on Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto"). And he's the best of the three bassists that appear on the album. He sounds totally natural and convincing on all of this. The only setting in which he disappoints is as a jazzy piano soloist; he doesn't have either the chops or musical knowledge to make much of "My Sunny," his simplification of the Bobby Hebb tune.

Although All Around Man is his only album, Pitchford contributed tracks to the German "Living Country Blues" series (partially reissued on Evidence), the concert that produced the Columbia album Roots of Rhythm & Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era, the Deep Blues soundtrack, and volume one of the National Downhome Blues Festival albums on Southland. But one of my most highly prized records is an LP of gorgeous Mississippi gospel by The Star Lite Singers. One of the Star Lites was the Rev. Charles Pitchford; he recruited his brother to play guitar and bass on their Footprint of Jesus album. I bought this record in Clarksdale around 1992; I suspect that not many people outside of Mississippi have heard it. Lonnie doesn't solo, but every shuffle rhythm and fill he plays is just perfect.

Charles officiated at his brother's funeral when the end came. Years ago, I read an online account of the service, but it has since been lost somewhere in the tubes of the interweb. But from what I remember, Rev. Pitchford's funeral sermon was unapologetic, even defiant, about his brother's lifestyle, taking the position that Lonnie was given the talent to play and sing the blues by God, and that he followed his path as well he was able. With any great artist, it's hard to know how much we can separate the man and music. If Lonnie Pitchford hadn't lived so fast and so hard, maybe his music wouldn't be so moving. But, hearing "See See Rider," "Lonesome Blues," or "Don't You Do That No More," it's hard not to regret the mode of living that brought early death to such a talent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) was on a different level than the general run of jazz musicians; he was one of those rare individuals who could create a musical universe or change the direction of a piece with one note. Giuffre ranks so highly in my esteem that his death, like Steve Lacy's passing, is still a little difficult for me to process; I have to force myself to realize that we no longer share the same planet.

My first encounter with Jimmy Giuffre's music came when I was in the eighth or ninth grade and was invited to attend the first rehearsal of my high school's newly formed "stage band." The school’s band director, Leon Cole, was remarkably visionary and open-eared, and was anxious to expose us to as many different types of music as possible. He really didn't know how to teach us improvisation, but it was at that rehearsal that I became aware of the concept. And Mr. Cole brought in a couple of books to teach us jazz style and phrasing. One was by Lennie Niehaus, if I remember correctly, but the other was Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation by Jimmy Giuffre, published in 1969.

The exercises in the Giuffre book were odd, conceptual, and difficult. We quickly gave up on it and concentrated on the Niehaus method. But I took my copy of the Giuffre home, and pored over it. It was way beyond me at the time, but I was fascinated, particularly by the final exercise, which was atonal and written without barlines. Several years ago I found another copy, and I still find it very challenging.

Jimmy Giuffre first came to the attention of the larger jazz world when Woody Herman recorded his "Four Brothers" back in 1947. The piece featured a saxophone section of unusual instrumentation: three tenors and a baritone. The first recording, featuring Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, was enough of a musical and commercial success that Herman played the piece for the rest of his life, and used the three-tenors-and-a-bari sax section from then on.

Although Giuffre was active in a variety of settings in the late forties and early fifties, he only found his true musical personality with a series recordings for Atlantic Records and with the formation of The Jimmy Giuffre 3 in the middle of that decade. The first Atlantic recording, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, exhibited the unusual, breathy sound that Giuffre had developed on that instrument. During this period he played the clarinet almost exclusively in the lower register, which led to one of the great sarcastic putdowns of jazz history; when it was announced that Giuffre would be teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz, critic Andre Hodier asked, "Who will be teaching the upper register?"

But a more important aspect of the Clarinet album was the variety and imagination of the settings which Giuffre composed or arranged for himself. It was obvious that Giuffre considered himself a composer as much as an instrumentalist. And although he contributed works to various large ensemble projects during this period, his most important compositional canvas was The 3, with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena on bass. This group was highly controversial at the time, in part because it didn't include a drummer. Giuffe had become increasingly dissatisfied with the role of drums in jazz, and had experimented (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) with an approach wherein the drummer played fills, but dispensed with conventional timekeeping. But those with ears to hear found the Jimmy Giuffre 3 a particularly intelligent and heartening example of that blending of composition and improvisation which was one of the overlooked subtexts of jazz in the 1950s. Pieces like "The Train and the River" and "Two Kinds of Blues" are good examples of the best work of this group.

When Pena left, Giuffre couldn't find another bassist that suited him, so he added valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer as the third member of the group. On the surface, this seemed like an even more radical instrumentation, but in reality this version of The 3 swung harder, while taking even more chances compositionally. Their definitive album paired Giuffre's four-part "Western Suite" with wonderful, loose versions of "Topsy" and "Blue Monk."

Toward the end of the fifties, and possibly influenced by some of the criticism he was receiving, Giuffre became unhappy with the direction of his music. The playing of Monk and Sonny Rollins seemed more direct and emotional to him, and he drifted for awhile before getting his bearings again. During this period he recorded a live album with Hall on guitar and a hard-swinging rhythm section. It didn't quite work, and critic Max Harrison has blamed the rhythm section, saying that they didn't understand what Giuffre needed. Harrison is the critic I most admire, and I hate to disagree with him, but it's obvious to me that Giuffre is forcing; he's trying to play hard and emotionally, but it's equally obvious to me that he's not being himself.

The answer came with the formation of a new Jimmy Giuffre 3 in 1961. Pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow were Giuffre's new partners; during the short life of the group they recorded three studio albums and impacted jazz in ways which only became apparent in retrospect. The new trio played music in which tonality, conventional jazz rhythms, and closed structures were only options, not givens. The result was a sometimes atonal jazz chamber music which, to many listeners, seemed to have more in common with contemporary classical music than jazz. Although influential and widely praised (musicians as diverse as Evan Parker and Joe McPhee have talked about this group’s impact on them), they never attracted much of an audience; Steve Swallow has written that they disbanded after a gig on which they each made 35 cents.

Giuffre continued playing uncompromising, individual free jazz with various partners. One of the few recorded examples of The 3 from later in the decade is a 1965 Paris set; it can be found on a French CD. With Don Friedman and Barre Phillips, Giuffre plays fearless, abstract music. The audience quickly loses patience and makes its displeasure known, but the hisses and catcalls seem to spur Giuffre on to new heights; he improvises with great intensity on both saxophone and clarinet.

In the seventies he continued to play with Paul Bley at times (Quiet Song is particularly beautiful) and lead his own groups, usually with bass and drums. He formed a new 4 (he didn't seem to care for the terms "trio" and "quartet") after hearing Weather Report and being impressed with its palette of electronic sounds. The new group included Pete Levin on synthesizers and keyboards and made three albums for Soul Note. Although my friend Robo finds the keyboard sounds too dated to enjoy this group, I like their music, which combines the lyrical feel of Giuffre's early 3 with a new strength and excitement.

Jimmy Giuffre continued to perform and record until the early nineties. Some of the most intriguing later work is by the reunited trio of Giuffre, Bley and Swallow. They made four albums between 1989 and 1993, and it's interesting to hear what elements of their earlier music they retained and which they discarded or reconsidered. Much of their later work was completely improvised, and they often broke into duets or solos.

Parkinson's Disease finally made it impossible for Giuffre to perform, and like all Parkinson's sufferers, he continued to decline until his death a couple of years ago. He left an amazing body of work, though. And he still kicks my ass every couple of days when I attempt to practice out of Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation.