The Many Tangents of Jimmy Giuffre

Jimmy Giuffre bbc

|“Like his more celebrated contemporary Miles Davis, Giuffre remains a musical chameleon, a distinctive stylist who constantly feels compelled to change his sonic setting.”  -Ted Gioia |

Jimmy Giuffre: The Headstream of Divergent Tangents

Jimmy Giuffre is not much heard these days. In fact, I’ll argue that the handful of jazz chroniclers who even dwell on his work are mostly focused on the wrong music. Much is made of Giuffre “anticipating forms of free improvisation” through his thoughtful experimentation within the jazz idiom. Specifically, his work with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow are consistently mentioned as a seminal moment in jazz; an anticipation and then foundation-setting music associated with the later works of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. It is not clear this emphasis on the free jazz aspect of Giuffre’s career isn’t more a case of sources repeating each other, rather than a result of critical listening to his music. This work is not so interesting to me.

JimmyGiuffreThe most intelligent and sympathetic discussion of Jimmy Giuffre and his life in music will be found in Ted Gioia’s terrific book, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 and originally published in 1992. Giuffre’s music included many strikingly distinct periods, many difficult for even a hardcore fan to appreciate. Stories emanate from a stint at North Texas State, when the school was in its formative years in becoming a beacon of jazz education, followed then by the heady influence of a religious mystic (a decade before it was the trendy thing to seek). Later would come Giuffre’s early success as a composer, rather than player, with Woody Herman providing some interesting context for the career that would follow.

Jimmy Giuffre Goes Experimental

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet from 1956 is a touchstone for understanding Giuffre’s development as a player and composer. The controlled transition from straight ahead to a more experimental style of jazz is what makes it sound so rich. Thirteen musicians participate on this album, but none play on more than three of the songs. No more than six musicians are ever included in a single track. And the first number, “So Low” is a solo piece, featuring just a clarinet and leather shoe. Only the third album with Giuffre as the leader, the future begins to come into focus. Here is a crisp, quiet, somewhat dissonant sound that is unique to the time. Even the pop music covers convey a special interpretation.

Next in line was The Jimmy Giuffre 3 also from 1956, when Jim Hall joins Giuffre, along with bassist Ralph Pena, who now comprise the entire ensemble. This music, without piano or drums, and such limited orchestration, offers a surprisingly full sound. The distance between the numbers “The Song is You” and “Forty-Second Street” is long, though not hard to follow. The music is experimental but still filled with playfulness and jazz motifs easy to digest. While other fine music from Giuffre, in the vicinity of these two recordings would appear, his desire to explore moved inexorably into uncharted waters.

Jimmy Giuffre’s Journey Continues

As the journey continued, the role of bass always played a prominent role. Later trios included some outstanding bass players including Ray Brown, Steve Swallow, Bob Nieske, and Red Mitchell. Even using Bob Brookmeyer on trombone in place of a bass creates a striking, but satisfying sound. Ultimately, while chasing some of the ideas first explored in his music from the late 1950’s, Giuffre ran down some rabbit holes that others couldn’t follow. This can be clearly heard in an often-mentioned album from 1962, Free Fall. Dissonant is the word that comes to mind when hearing music untethered from a jazz mooring.

JimmyGiuffreQuasarFinally, I have to mention Quasar from 1985, a personal favorite. Jimmy Giuffre plays clarinet, but also soprano and tenor sax, flute and bass flute. It’s an electric keyboard, not piano, lighting up the sound. Here the jazz is also not straight ahead, yet still accessible. Another thoughtful, thought-provoking recording offering a different kind of quiet intensity than Free Fall.  

All Tangents Lead Back to Something

The magic of jazz is often found in a musician’s ability to turn one sound into another. While this experimentation can often make sonic turns hard to follow, the result is almost always a more sophisticated artist. That one phase of a long career is not personally satisfying doesn’t mean another phase won’t be. And what one critic calls a “crowning achievement” may not be. The trick is to try and not judge or focus on the sounds of a single tangent from a long career in jazz.

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