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Jimmy Giuffre and Free Jazz by Ivor Holloway
Jazz has always thrived on experimentation and risk. The unpredictable interactions between improvising musicians guarantee that every jazz performance contains an element of surprise and discovery—something that has never been heard before. Often, these surprises come from subtle variations of familiar elements; a great bassist can reveal an infinite universe of possibilities within the strict limits of a walking bass line, or a singer's rhythmic phrasing can give new meaning to a familiar lyric. Most of the time, musicians strive to develop a personal sound that is completely unique, while operating within a set of stylistic boundaries. The desire to be original is counterbalanced by the need to observe certain conventions in order to communicate with other players. But there is another type of creative goal that some musicians pursue.  Instead of seeking their unique voices within broadly defined styles, some artists experiment with the boundaries of those styles to create entirely new modes of musical expression. The classic example of this type of artist is Miles Davis, who reinvented his music constantly throughout his career, and was influential in almost every significant stylistic innovation in jazz from bebop to electric fusion. Similarly, John Coltrane could have rested on his laurels when he was hailed as a major talent early on; instead, he radically changed his musical approach several times, first establishing a new aesthetic of harmonic complexity, then moving in steps toward a more intuitive, spiritual form of expression. With artists like these, the sense of surprise in their music comes not just from unexpected details appearing in a familiar context; they create entirely new contexts. The history of jazz is measured by the achievements of visionaries like these, who re-shape the musical landscape and create the conditions upon which other artists construct their styles.

Jimmy GiuffreThe composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, who passed away this spring, was another maverick, albeit a less well-known one, who was powerfully driven by the urge to experiment and create radically new styles. Although he’s probably best known for one of his earliest and most conventional compositions (“Four Brothers,” a 1948 sax-section feature for the Woody Herman band), his career output after the decline of the big band era shows one boldly innovative idea after another. He used esoteric instruments like the bass flute, English horn, and celesta in his small-group recordings, but almost never used drums. He developed an inimitable style of folk-jazz, influenced by the music he heard growing up in Texas. He studied and was profoundly influenced by the music of Bartok and Schoenberg. He deliberately bent the neck of his tenor saxophone to produce an even more airy and distinctive tone. But perhaps most significantly, he led a trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow that staked out its own startlingly unique territory on the early frontier of free jazz.

The trio released three albums in 1961 and 1962 that sound like absolutely nothing that had come before. Most strikingly, the group largely eschewed traditional jazz harmony. Instead of improvising strictly within a pre-determined set of chord changes, Giuffre and his bandmates were free to move in any harmonic direction they chose. This afforded them great freedom in their improvisations, but it also created unique demands; without a shared harmony the music could easily descend into cacophony or simply meander without any sense of drama, development, or purpose. They avoided these pitfalls by tweaking some of the other conventions of small-group jazz, maintaining the listener's interest by playing contrapuntally instead of observing the usual distinctions between soloist and accompanist, or by condensing their explorations into two-minute pieces that often sounded like mash-ups between Lester Young's small-group sessions and Anton Webern's atonal chamber music. In their recordings, the players’ concentration and restraint are almost palpable, and every musical gesture that punctuates the rarefied silence is unexpected and dramatic.

Giuffre's experiments with harmonic freedom, of course, did not take place in a vacuum. In the early 1960's the “free jazz” movement was beginning to emerge, led by the visionary saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Giuffre admired Coleman, and the two undoubtedly influenced each other’s musical thinking; they played at many of the same venues, employed some of the same musicians (Bley had recorded with Coleman before joining Giuffre), and discussed their concepts when they both taught at John Lewis’s Summer Jazz Institute in Lennox, Massachusetts. Coleman's free jazz resembled Giuffre's in that improvisers were not restricted by a pre-determined harmony, but the route by which he arrived at this freedom was quite different. In Coleman's early 60’s recordings, he and his colleagues played with a rambunctious energy that pushed against the usual jazz conventions while still acknowledging them. A soloist might start out by following the harmonic structure of a tune, only to break away from it when the solo's energy grew to the point where the chord changes could no longer contain it.  Giuffre's group, on the other hand, tended to start an improvisation from a point of harmonic freedom. Whereas Coleman's free jazz concept initially treated harmony as a set of rules to be subverted at the player's discretion, Giuffre's music more often existed in a zone where the rules of traditional harmony were suspended from the get-go and chromaticism, tone clusters, and drones took the place of conventional chord progressions. Giuffre disbanded the trio in 1962, when indifference from his record label and hostility from jazz purists in the public made it impossible to find lucrative gigs. He taught at conservatories and universities for the next two decades and released a few albums on an independent jazz label. The trio re-united in the early 1990’s and enjoyed a modest resurgence, particularly in Europe, where their unique free jazz found a receptive audience. Sadly, Giuffre’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire from playing and teaching in 1996. 

Ornette Coleman’s name is now synonymous with free jazz, and rightly so. His diverse and visionary body of work has developed free jazz from a handful of avant garde experiments into one of the most significant movements in 20th century music and beyond, and he has at times had to pursue his vision in the face of criticism and even ridicule. However, for every revolutionary artist who eventually finds vindication in the form of critical recognition and widespread cultural influence, there are others who lapse into relative obscurity. Jimmy Giuffre was one of these: a fearless member of the avant garde, exploring and opening up new territory in which the art form can flourish.