Friday, May 21, 2010

Listening Session: Jimmy Giuffre, Free Fall

Jimmy Giuffre (pronounced JOOfray) isn’t a household name in jazz although he possibly could have been, had he followed a more conventional musical career path. He certainly started on that path when he worked as an arranger for Woody Herman’s big band, penning one of its hits, “Four Brothers”. When Giuffre led his own group in the mid- and late fifties, he produced a number of accessible cool jazz albums to moderate commercial success. But even at this point something was off-kilter, most notably the composition of his band. He mainly performed in a trio with himself on saxophone or clarinet and Jim Hall on guitar and a bassist or a trombonist. Not your typical jazz trio.

Giuffre really let go of conventional music-making in the early sixties when he ventured into free jazz with a trio consisting of Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass. He released albums with titles like “Thesis” and “Fusion” which tipped off the abstract nature of the music. I recently listened to his last album with this group, “Free Fall” (1962). It was pretty much dismissed upon its released, but its reputation has grown ever since. It’s a difficult album to listen to, because there’s no discernible melody or harmony or rhythm. It doesn’t sound much like jazz at all. In fact, the nearest musical analog is Oliver Messiaen’s classical chamber works. Giuffre’s clarinet on “Free Fall” is reminiscent of the oft-used clarinets in Messiaen’s music, which evoke the calls of other-worldly, mystical birds. Whereas Messiaen usually had religious—specifically Catholic—themes in mind, Giuffre doesn’t seem to have any narrative or theme in mind. It’s more like an abstract painting done with sound. “Free Fall” differs from other free jazz in the way that the abstract expression of Mark Rothko differs from that of Jackson Pollock: There’s less frenetic energy and more calm moodiness.

I listened to “Free Fall” straight through willingly, unlike my recent session with Cecil Taylor for which I forced myself to listen. “Free Fall” is captivating in its own inscrutable way. The title is indicative of the musical experience as the listener must let go of all musical convention and just go where the artist takes him. It also describes the commercial trajectory of Giuffre's record. It was three years before he released another record, on an independent label. The Columbia PR man who decided to put the sticker on the cover heralding "A New Star on Columbia Records" obviously didn't bother listening to this difficult album.

The copy of “Free Fall” I have is a white label promo. These are promotional copies that were distributed for free to radio stations and industry representatives. As the name suggests, the labels are white instead of the standard color—in the case of Giuffre’s album the standard red Columbia label. Record collectors value WLPs because of their scarcity. Audiophiles value them because they are usually among the first copies pressed and thus benefit from fresh, unworn stampers.

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