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Jimmy Giuffre: The Complete Capitol & Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre

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Jimmy Giuffre has become a patron saint of jazz intellectualism and an avant-garde patriarch. His experimental adventurousness is repeatedly pointed to as the jazz antecedent for disparate activities in rarefied quarters of composition and improvised music. Unaccompanied solos, unorthodox ensemble configurations, extended orchestral compositions, overdubbing: Giuffre was there early on, if not first, on all counts. Yet, the rush to canonize this composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist, has obscured the content of his music, and the impetus for his unlikely voyage from big band sax sections to the edge of the known jazz universe in less than a decade. The 6-CD The Complete Capitol & Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre details his evolution in the critical period of 1954 through 1958, shining considerable light on one of the most intriguing figures of post-war jazz.

Giuffre’s music underwent several cycles of consolidating concepts and making bold advances during this period. The first such cycle is represented by the two Capitol albums included in the collection. ’54’s Four Brothers is a summation of Guiffre’s career to date; interestingly, it even contains a West Coasted version of the title piece, the ’47 Woody Herman hit that was Giuffre’s first claim to fame as a writer. Among the retooled standards and the occasionally notable work of Giuffre, trumpeter Jack Sheldon, and drummer Shelley Manne, there are two decidedly forward-looking works, the through-composed “Sultana” and the solo-laced “Wrought in Iron.” More important than their cool features, these pieces hint at Giuffre’s interest in folk music, which became an integral part of his work.

It was 1955’s Tangents in Jazz, though, that signaled Giuffre was on the move; there is a diminished profile for percussion, an emphasis on counter melodies and figured bass in the ensembles, and a sustained hushed quality to the often antiphonal improvisations. Yet, for every structural innovation in this quartet date with Sheldon, bassist Ralph Pena, and drummer Artie Anton-such as the scattering of the four epigrammatic “Scintilla”s throughout the program-there is a reinforcement of Giuffre’s affinity for such root musics as the blues and cowboy songs.

Recorded in March ’56, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, his first Atlantic album, compressed these cycles to a blur, juxtaposing bland blues-based charts like “Down Home” and his pointed, yet tender arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” for clarinet, oboe, English horn, bassoon, and bass, which undoubtedly influenced composers like Franz Koglmann. Any album that, on one end of the spectrum, is represented by daring contextual forays like “So Low” for solo clarinet, “The Sheepherder,” for three clarinets, and “The Side Pipers” for clarinet, three flutes, and drums, and, on the other, by a corny version of “Deep Purple” featuring a celeste, is cause for a long spell in the shed. Fortunately, that’s exactly what Giuffre did, documented by fine, contrasting August ’56 sessions from the Lenox Music Barn pairing Giuffre with the Modern Jazz Quartet and a sextet featuring Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart, and Oscar Pettiford.

It worked, as his next studio recording (in December ’56) was the watershed eponymous debut of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena. In this flexible trio, Giuffre seamlessly joined the previous tangents of his work. He went a step beyond the conceptual uncoupling of volume and intensity that had long motivated him, and tapped a buoyant energy unimaginable at red-line levels.

Additionally, the 3 established numerous new shades of gray between lead and support functions within a small group, often engaging silence to round out a foursome. Yet, never in the history of jazz has radical innovation been so mellifluous and charming. Indeed, as he wrote in his original liner notes, “(T)here is a folk-songy, bluesy, down-homey,old-timey, natural, funky air about all the tunes.” A real bonus is the collection’s inclusion of six previously unissued tracks made almost a year later with Jim Atlas; though the delicate balance of the original 3 is tipped towards Giuffre and Hall, they are still engaging.

Oddly, the well Giuffre went to immediately after the first 3 date was Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and it proved to be the deepest of any he visited during his consolidating phases of the ’50s. Giuffre tapped Wilson’s homespun lyricism with remarkable sensitivity; subsequently, ’57’s Jimmy Giuffre and His Men Play “The Music Man” was not the typical jazz-does-Broadway affair, as the three trumpet and three sax front line caressed “It’s You” and gave “Shipoopi” the hoe-down swing that had become Giuffre’s trademark. This set the stage for Giuffre’s last ascent with Atlantic.

It’s delicious that, after tackling “76 Trombones” with an ensemble that had none, he brought valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer into the 3, replacing Atlas. The new 3’s Trav’lin’ Light was cut in early ’58, nearly two months after the aforementioned tracks with Atlas, and covered many of the same pieces. The difference in timbres and registers is remarkable; additionally, Brookmeyer increased the fluidity of the trio’s interplay. Brookmeyer’s yeoman’s skills as a pianist were also an asset when Giuffre, in an interesting psychological plot twist, used overdubbing to revisit The Four Brothers Sound in mid-’58. However, Giuffre did more than revive the past; pieces like the hovering mini-suite “Ode to Switzerland” and the ponderous “Space” substantially laid the groundwork for his avant credentials.

This pivotal chapter in Giuffre’s career ends majestically with The Western Suite, recorded at the end of ’58. The 3’s shooting-the-breeze-on-the-front-porch interaction is further streamlined on this jazz equivalent of a Copland ballet, giving the almost eighteen-minute work its liberating sense of wide-open space. Soon after leaving Atlantic, Giuffre recorded such groundbreaking works as “Piece for Clarinet and String Orchestra” and “Mobiles,” and embarked upon his historic association with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. But these ventures favored formalism over the cowboy soul Giuffre perfected on albums such as The Western Suite. While this maverick brand of jazz lives on in the widely acclaimed work of Bill Frisell, The Complete Capitol & Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre allows a new generation of listeners to go to the source; it’s a long cool drink.