There is a kind of poetic imagination at work in the early solo recordings of Jimmy Giuffre. He knew what sound he was looking for; could hear it in all its breezy complexity; but had to experiment for a number of years before hitting upon it: a varied and rich tapestry that may be overlooked by mainstream jazz fans who are still goo-goo-eyed over all the '50s had to offer; but shouldn't be. Taken in part or as a whole, The Complete Capitol and Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre, (six CDs-worth from the Four Brothers sessions), reveal truly original statements sung by a master of dynamic, harmonic, and timbral invention and counterpoint. Giuffre (and Dave Brubeck) studied counterpoint with French composer Darius Milhaud, and it shows. The music contained here is considered, even today, with its strange lineups and odd ghostly voicings, to be sometimes quirky or iconoclastic.
The evidence, of course, is in the recordings themselves, beginning with 1953's Four Brothers session. Giuffre alternates on clarinet, baritone, and tenor, with side men that include pianist Russ Freeman, trumpeter Jack Sheldon, bassist Curtis Counce, and drum king Shelly Manne, on half the session, and altoist Bud Shank, Shorty Rogers on flugelhorn (and subbing Ralph Pena on bass), and vibist Bob Enevoldsen. On Four Brothers, one can hear Giuffre's discontent with the idea of the piano carrying the body of the harmonic groove and the skittering of the drums during the solos.
The next step would be, of course, to jettison the piano for the scandalous (at that time) Tangents in Jazz. Featuring Giuffre and his army of horns with Sheldon, Pena, and drummer Artie Anton, Tangents in Jazz set the pens of critics to scrawling across the page. Here was a quartet set that decided the piano -- even before Chet Baker -- was dispensable, and that linear development and improvisation would be better served by accenting timbre and dynamic rather than an overabundance of harmonic considerations.
Right or wrong, and despite the controversy, the album has proven to be a classic. The reason is simple: Giuffre's insistence on subtle shades and textures in melodic improvisation made his music -- no matter how "odd" sounding -- palatable. The muted tones and nuances of Tangents in Jazz are balanced by the sheer melodic invention of the soloing of all players as they develop along contrapuntal lines, showcasing timbral shifts that would normally go unnoticed as key elements in the linear -- not horizontal -- erection of a series of melodic ideas in a composition; all joined by improvisation that added a block that harmony may or may not be considered as a stepping stone to another rung. And hell yes, Tangents in Jazz, like Four Bothers before it, swung smooth; but it swung tough.
The other albums included are not only Giuffre's recordings as a leader: The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet; Jimmy Giuffre 3/Music Man ; Trav'lin Light; The Four Brothers Sound; but also the Modern Jazz Quartet's Modern Jazz Quartet at the Music Inn; and Third Stream Music: albums on which Giuffre guested. Beginning with the Clarinet album, the shift in Giuffre's music became a hard left turn; the drummers on the session, Shelly Manne and Stan Levey, were instructed to play with brushes so as to be unobtrusive in keeping time; and to lay out during solos.
The final turn of the wheel occurred when Giuffre guested with the Modern Jazz Quartet on their MJQ at Music Inn set. When he heard the advanced notions of counterpoint and timbral dynamics between Milt Jackson and John Lewis, Giuffre knew exactly where he was heading. The album Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Ralph Pena and guitarist Jim Hall, proved to be the stepping stone to Thesis; Fusion; Free Fall; and the other 1960's dates for Columbia and other labels. The music developed among the trio of Pena, Hall, and Giuffre, would inform Giuffre's notions of harmony and counterpoint for the rest of his life. The quick, easy feel of his own sound was married to Hall's shimmering arpeggios and large chordal scales, with Pena opening up space between the pair for more improvisation to occur. Concentrating only on originals, Giuffre allowed the natural space in a band -- consisting of two strings and either a wind or reed instrument -- to breathe and open itself into the linear development of improvisation. The music swung, with a breezy, easy, slippery feel, but its compositional and improvisational complexities were plainly visible.
The other notable shift in the Giuffre canon for Atlantic occurred on his last album for them, as a leader, on Western Suite. With the replacement of Ralph Pena with Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, Giuffre had completely changed the idea of harmonic linearity within a small-group setting; he had done this earlier on the Trav'lin Light album, but Western Suite was, at that point, Giuffre's masterpiece compositionally. Here were two lead instruments and one accompanying instrument that could become invisible. But Hall's contribution is far from slight. His elongated, suspended, and augmented chords were exactly what this music needed most -- based as it was on cowboy and folk songs; the latter a tradition in Giuffre's music-making, given how obsessed he was with folk culture. The long, muted, ringing tones of Brookmeyer and Hall, and the silky otherworldliness of Giuffre's blues-based riffing soloing, made for an exercise that would have made Aaron Copland proud. Giuffre not only celebrated the pioneers and the cowboys, he praised -- long before it was culturally fashionable -- the indigenous people as well with harmonic ideas and melodic fragments influenced by their chants and ceremonies. The entire album is created with a certain kind of timbral elegance that relies on embouchure and shading for its gorgeous dramatic appeal. Other tunes like "Blue Monk," "Topsy," and Tickle Toes" provided a more laid-back, whimsical atmosphere and allowed the band to stretch in front of their invited studio audience. Yep; the entire album was recorded live as a goodbye: Giuffre had decided to disband the trio shortly before the sessions. Western Suite is a sublime statement of a master composer who has finally realized the full range of his poetic powers.
In sum, Mosaic has done us a great service in issuing a wealth of material from the issued vaults as well as no less than nine never-before-issued takes or performances -- some of which were session rejects -- and only God and Giuffre know why. The mastering is top-notch -- far better than the Atlantic reissues of the same material -- and as usual, the presentation is top-notch with extensive liner notes by Francis Davis and photos by William Claxton.