In 1994, I had only just begun to buy jazz on CD (having finally upgraded from Walkman to Discman). So the prospect of obtaining four (four!) CDs for the price of one seemed a lot more exciting to me back when I only owned about a dozen CDs, total, than it probably seems to anyone today. But nonetheless, I assure you that I snapped up The Verve Story: 1944-1994 with considerable anticipation. My "collection," such as it was at the time, consisted entirely of discs by Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Heribe, Wayne, Monk, and Mingus -- here was a chance to hear music by older artists that I'd been told I needed to know about, but had not actually heard yet. So this box was, believe it or not, my first exposure to the likes of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, and others.
The standout cut, though -- the one that quite literally stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I heard it -- was Jimmy Giuffre's recording of "In the Mornings Out There," with Paul Bley (piano) and Steve Swallow (bass). The tune is by Carla Bley. I had never heard anything remotely like it before. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is what Kind of Blue would have sounded like if everyone on it played like Miles."
There is so much space on that cut. All of the usual jazz musician instincts -- to define the time and the harmony, to fill out the sound, and so on -- are completely inverted here. Paul Bley doesn't play any real chords at first. He just rocks back and forth between a pair of mid-register perfect fourths. Giuffre enters with a dark and breathy clarinet sound, moody and introspective and modernistic, a world removed from the swing-era clarinet sound. The first harmonic "change" comes purely by implication -- Giuffre plays Bb instead of B natural, while Bley doesn't change a thing. There are no chord roots to pin down the progression -- Steve Swallow doesn't play a note until a full minute into the tune. The time is ambiguous too, juxtaposing the 12/8 implied by the piano ostinato with an undercurrent of double-time 4/4 swing, most often invisible below a surface of long dark tones. The chiaroscuro mood, which other jazz musicians might have confined to a brief intro (like, for instance, Gil Evans's written piano-and-bass intro to "So What") is sustained and developed for almost seven minutes. This could easily get precious or boring, but instead Giuffre's quiet, focused intensity is completely transfixing. It still grabs me just as hard today as it was when it first drifted over my Discman earbuds fourteen years ago.
Everyone has a handful of recordings that changed their lives. "In the Mornings Out There" changed mine. I didn't know music could be like that. Here it is:
MP3: "In The Mornings Out There," Jimmy Giuffre 3 (click to listen, right-click/control-click to download)
This track is originally from 1961's Fusion, the first Giuffre-Bley-Swallow trio record. Fusion and the followup, Thesis, recorded one month later, were originally released on Verve, but ECM's Manfred Eicher loved them so much he bought the masters and reissued them both on his own label as the 2 CD Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961 -- which makes this track kind of an odd choice for inclusion on The Verve Story box set, but I am certainly not complaining.
If the above track doesn't convince you that you need to own these albums, I don't know what to tell you. You can get them from Amazon or on iTunes. The third recording in this trilogy, Free Fall, is a lot more acerbic but inarguably brilliant.
There have been lots of great blogospheric appreciations of Giuffre, who died last Thursday from complications of the Parkinson's Disease that prematurely silenced his voice. The best is from trumpeter Kris Tiner at his spiffy new blog (#3, I believe), All At Once:
I have been profoundly inspired by this man's music, especially in the past couple of years. He was a true innovator, once heralded by the jazz press but eventually all but abandoned by them as he embraced open improvisation, atonality, microtonality and pulseless rhythm long before it became "acceptable" to do so. But I think the most significant thing (evidenced by his early 60s work in particular) is that he proved that free improvisation didn't have to abandon melody, and it certainly didn't have to abandon the intimacy and quiet dynamics of chamber music.
Read the whole thing. Kris has written a tune in memoriam of JG. He also links to some great videos of earlier editions of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 -- the Bley-Swallow outfit is rightly regarded as his greatest trio, but the bass-free one with Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer is also pretty killing, as you can see in this video). He also links to a downloadable live bootleg from 1961.
Other notable links:
Nik Payton, whose blog first broke the news.
Ted Gioia (Jazz.com) places Giuffre's music in the greater context of West Coast jazz.
Ben Ratliff (NYT)
Matt Schudel (WaPo) -- his piece has a nice quote from Brookmeyer.
Andrew Durkin (Jazz: The Music of Unemployment)
Doug Ramsey (Rifftides) -- it is astounding to think that the person who wrote a chestnut like "Four Brothers" for the Woody Herman band also made a record like Free Fall.
Mark Myers (JazzWax) has lots of recollections from West Coast jazz musicians.
Harris Eisenstadt (Tie a Bow Not A Knot)
David Brent Johnson (WFIU Night Lights)
Steve Schwartz (WGBH) -- this 1994 interview, conducted shortly after Giuffre had been diagnosed with Parkinson's, is a must-listen.
Also, Secret Society co-conspirator Mike McGinnis emailed me to say "I probably felt musically closer to him and Lacy than any other musicians. I guess it's up to us to keep it all going."