Uncovering reedist Jimmy Giuffre's lost decade

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The odds are slim that a better historical jazz release will surface this year than The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 New York Concerts (Elemental Music), a mind-bending double CD collecting two previously unissued live performances by the reedist from 1965. The music dates from Giuffre's lost decade, a period of time when almost no documentation of his playing exists. His fortunes took a tumble following the release of the brilliant 1963 album Free Fall (Columbia), a paradigm-shifting trio set made with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow that pushed the leader's obsession with contrapuntal composition and improvisation to its apotheosis. The music was very much ahead of its time—drummerless, austere, and decidedly abstract—and the intervening years have shown how profound Giuffre's ideas were; his brand of chamber jazz continues to endure in all sorts of contemporary projects. Ken Vandermark even named one of his groups—with pianist Håvard Wiik and bassist Ingebrit Håker Flaten—Free Fall; clarinetist James Falzone has referenced Giuffre's music in his group Klang; and recently trumpeter Dave Douglas explored those chamber-like sounds in his new Riverside project.

Back in the 50s Giuffre gained acclaim as a member of Woody Herman's Herd, especially for his tune "Four Brothers," but he really found his voice in a remarkable trio he formed with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena, which deployed a restrained sound that lumped the music in with cool jazz—though there was nothing laid-back or easy about the level of improvisation and spontaneous give-and-take. As the decade ended he pushed the music forward with looser structures and more adventurous improvisation. The commercial failure of Free Fall led to him getting dropped by Columbia—he wouldn't make another album as a leader until 1971—and the trio with Bley and Swallow soon disbanded, but Giuffre hardly retreated or watered down his ideas, as this stunning release proves. The concerts were both recorded by George Klabin, who taped them for a radio show he had on Columbia University's station WKCR, but after they were broadcast they were never heard again.

The first disc is a special recording, largely due to the instrumentation. The band is a trio featuring Giuffre on both his usual clarinet as well as tenor saxophone, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Joe Chambers. Giuffre had largely put aside the sax in the 50s, just as he had stopped working with drummers in his own bands around the same time. The set includes a performance of Ornette Coleman's high-velocity classic "Crossroads," and while Giuffre sounds nothing like Ornette, it's a telling choice: both musicians pushed away from improvisation based on chord changes. Most of the tempos are slow to moderate and the music is marked by the kind of spaciousness and contemplativeness consistent with the Bley-Swallow lineup. The second disc features Chambers again, along with with bassist Barre Phillips and pianist Don Friedman. Below you can check out the quartet version of Giuffre's tune "Syncopate."

Today's playlist:

Omer Klein and Haggai Cohen Milo, Duet (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Simon Allen, Chris Burn, Lee Patterson, and Mark Wastell, John Cage: Four4 (Another Timbre)
Aynur, Nupel (Kalan)
Prince Far I, Psalms for I (Pressure Sounds)
Philip Corner and Manuel Zurria, Joy Flashings (Die Schachtel)

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