Monday, November 28, 2011

The Unsounded Beat

The Jimmy Giuffre Trio in 1957 included bassist Ralph Pena and guitarist Jim Hall. The leader's distinctive clarinet and tenor style gave the group its trademark cerebral sound, a sort of ascetic chamber jazz. Photo by William Claxton
Can music sans improvisation be considered jazz? This album may be a case in point.

Jimmy Giuffre, the guy with the unpronounceable surname, was an exponent of – what? – third stream music in the 1950s. Originally an arranger for Woody Herman, Giuffre secured a place in jazz history by composing (and playing on) "Four Brothers," and then made his mark as a soloist of substance with Shorty Rogers' Giants. But it was with a series of trios and quartets that the reedist really found his musical voice. Not exactly cool, not really chamber jazz, maybe a blend of classical and jazz approaches, the music produced by his groups remains unlike anything before or since. Only the MJQ and perhaps Art Farmer's quartet with Jim Hall capture a similar quiet, introspective intensity. Giuffre's music, though, had limited appeal, and many of his recordings have eluded collectors for decades.

I came across this record at an online auction site and knew I had to have it. I normally pay a buck or less for such treasures, but I ponied up considerably more for this Capitol disc. I don't know why – I'm not a huge fan of Jimmy Giuffre or the school of music he represents (if he can be said to represent any school at all). But Giuffre records are like hen's teeth, and a clean one is a true rarity, so I PayPal-ed my way to ownership. Because Jimmy's music is often very quiet with lots of silent spaces, vintage discs of his can often have distressingly bad sound quality. But this mono LP is cleaner than clean.

So here is "Tangents in Jazz," an odd work even for the Giuffre oeuvre. The liner notes describe its distinguishing characteristic as music with "no audible beat." Jimmy himself says it's "jazz, with a non-pulsating beat." To my ears, the beat's there all right – it's the improvisation that's lacking. As far as I can tell, only the trumpeter, jazz man and comedian Jack Sheldon, gets any real solo space. The rest is written out.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the music here is that it was produced at a time when groups like the Jazz Messengers were forming and hard bop was emerging as the dominant jazz style, at least on the East Coast. Giuffre was clearly in a different place. His compositions, despite their formal quality, are tuneful and compelling, and the record works well as a coherent whole. See what you think of it.

As always, these files were ripped right from the vinyl with only a very minor cleaning of the sound.


Tangents in Jazz
Capitol T634
Jimmy Giuffre, cl, ts; Jack Sheldon, tp; Ralph Pena, b; Artie Anton, d.
Hollywood, CA; June 1955

1. Scintilla I
2. Finger Snapper
3. Lazy Tones
4. Scintilla II
5. Chirpin' Time
6. This Is My Beloved ((Vernon Duke)
7. The Leprechaun
8. Scintilla III
9. Rhetoric
10. Scintilla IV

All compositions except 6 by Jimmy Giuffre


  1. David-thanks so much for this one! (I was so expecting a dead link!) My interest in Giuffre derives from Van Morrison, who said he would listen to The Train and the River for hours! Guiffre became Van's sax guru because of that song. I find Guiffre to be melodic with quite a few unexpected turns in the tunes. I had never encountered this one, which makes it even better. Thanks again!

  2. Oh, and for whatever it might be worth, I always pronounced his surname Juffrey-as in Jeffrey with an 'uh' sound. Unpronounceable names deserve some improvisation!

    1. I totally agree, V. "Joof-ree" is how I've always heard it pronounced. The interesting thing about Jimmy is that at a time when hard bop was the lingua franca of jazz, he was doing something entirely different. That gets points in my book. And I didn't know Van M. was a fan. I did know he played alto, but I wasn't aware that he aspired to higher things.

  3. Van has seldom been without a splendid band in his long career. and is a respectable multi-instrumentalist.

    Unexpected pairings makes all music interesting. Several years ago, there was an interesting, made on a tight budget DVD called Grappelli: A Life in the Jazz Century, which gave the story of how Steph got paired up with Yehudi Menuhin. It was done by Brit talk show host Michael Parkinson. He was visiting with Menuhin to arrange an appearance and noticed Menuhin had some Grappelli albums and an idea was born. In the DVD interview, Menuhin expressed boundless admiration for Grappelli and averred how he wished he could do even a bit of improvisation. He never considered himself a jazz player but was honored by the association with Steph. Oddly, if you look up List of Jazz Violinists on Wikipedia, you will find Yehudi Menuhin listed with the jazz players!

    1. Well, there's a nice helping of info I was unaware of. I was working in a record store when that Grappelli/Menuhin LP came out. A hot seller, as I recall. I never thought of Yehudi as an improviser, but it always amazes me when musicians say they can't improvise. Sort of like a runner saying he can't walk. How can that be?

  4. Menuhin considered himself very conditioned by his read-the-notes classical training. He and Steph made a number of albums, and I'm sure Steph would have given Yehudi lots of pointers on inprov. I think it is a wonderful thing that Nigel Kennedy who was in Menuhin's school for young classical players became a protege of Grappelli and continues to work in Jazz and Classics to this day. Nigel, Martin Taylor and a number of Stephane's late career band mates are featured in that DVD.

    I like lots of violin players, but my two favorite Jazzers are Steph and Eddie South. Among living players, Tim Kliphuis and Regina Carter are very enjoyable too.

    1. Well, the classical fiddle players I've known have all bemoaned the fact that they can't play a note if it's note on the page in front of them. I didn't know Nigel Kennedy was an improviser, but it makes sense. He can do everything else. I've never been too enthusiastic about Regina. I got to interview on my radio show a few years back and she was very nice but I've always been underimpressed by her playing. Contemporary guys? Jason Hwang is a fave. The late Billy Bang, too. And, of course, my man Leroy Jenkins. As for the older guys, nobody beats Ray Nance. Stuff Smith goes without saying. And then there's the trickster, Joe Venuti ...