My first exposure to the work of Jimmy Giuffre came via Jazz on a Summer’s Day , a documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The film opens with Giuffre’s trio playing “The Train and the River.” (The whole set is available on Hollywood & Newport, 1957-1958, Fresh Sound 1026.) Giuffre is an interesting guy. He plays soprano, tenor, and baritone sax, flute, bass flute, and clarinet. His trio then consisted of Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer (valve trombone), and Jim Hall (guitar). The album at hand was made with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass; this group worked together for only 18 months, but their output is impressive. Prior to Free Fall , they recorded Fusion and Thesis for Verve; ECM has reissued them as a double-CD called 1961 . Also, concerts in Stuttgart and Bremen, Germany from November of that year have been released by the hat Art label as Emphasis and Flight , respectively. These albums, according to Penguin, “are essential documents in the development of a broader jazz idiom that refused to see bop as the only recourse.” As he wrote, “The record contains five solos for unaccompanied clarinet; two duets for clarinet and bass; and three trios for clarinet, piano and bass.”
Free Fall was recorded in October and November, 1962, and it is their masterpiece. How good is it? Well, of thousands and thousands of CDs in The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, 3rd ed., we have here one of only 55 to recieve a five-star rating. That said, you might not like it.
This record does not swing. Giuffre tends to go for a relaxed, angular form of improvisation. “Giuffre,” says Penguin, “often sounds as if he is in a world of his own, intensely focused, totally aware, but communicating ideas for which there was no ready-made language or critical rhetoric.” Most people can only take so much of this stuff, because it abandons the whole notion of improvising over a rhythmic foundation. The downside of such an approach is that it leaves no time signature or other reference point for the listener; the upside is that said absence creates a vortex of expectation which allows you to concentrate on the music, rather than trying to anticipate its direction. The solo stuff fails to bore because the clarinet, unlike most of its reeded brethren, has such a light and nimble sound that it doesn’t grate on one’s nerves over long periods. Bley and Swallow, having been relieved of the need to synchronize themselves in order to “back” Giuffre, seem to be playing against a hypothetical (as opposed to the leader’s literal) backdrop of silence. Any emphasis on speed, volume, or explicit melody would have ruined the album. But since each man’s playing leans more to the minimalist than the frenetic, the duos and trios function effectively as duos and trios.
Purists may question the importance of packaging to the overall evaluation of a record. The music, they’d say, is the only thing that matters. Sure, but aesthetics must come into consideration, if only to point out a label’s commitment to its artists. When the labels first began to reissue jazz CDs en masse, Columbia fell far behind Verve, Blue Note, and Impulse!, due to an atrocious cover design they felt obliged to repeat for several years, a glaring lack of bonus tracks, and text-only booklets. (You probably own a few of these: see Davis, Miles.) The deepest vault of classic jazz in existence was compromised with crappy packaging, but they have caught up in marvelous fashion. With 20 minutes of previously unissued material, extra photos, and a new essay by Swallow, this version is better than the original.
Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., 26th Floor, New York, NY 10022