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.


Anonymous said...

It is impossible to overstate the impact Giuffre has had on my understanding of music since you turned me on to his work. He, along with Konitz, fit right in with the re-thinking of guitar that Frisell spurred. Really transformative.

Scott Burland said...

Hi Jeff!
I am a huge Giuffre fan, the old stuff in particular, but I took bass lessons from Jimmy's bass player Bob Nieske in Boston during the 80's and saw that quartet with Randy Kaye and Pete Levin quite often...It was different from the older stuff, but quite often beautifully spooky.