Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jimmy Giuffre and Scintilla Revisited

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It’s just one way and every man must go his own way.”
- Jimmy Giuffre, Down Beat, November 30, 1955

“Jimmy is an innovator and much has been written about his contributions to clarinet playing style and to Jazz composition, but this is secondary. It is the basic quality of his music, with its uncontrived simplicity and glowing inner feeling that sets Jimmy apart.”
- Gary Kramer, liner notes to The Jimmy Giuffre 3 [Atlantic 1254]

“the spirit of Jazz suffuses all of these performances …and important step in the long Giuffre musical odyssey …  they are simply marvelous, full of life brimming with ideas, and chock-full of rich, rewarding, imaginative writing and playing.”
- Peter Keepnews, liner notes to the PAUSA: Jazz Origins reissue of Giuffre’s 1950 Capitol LPs

“When one listens to Giuffre's music for what it is—and not for what one thinks it should be—the beauties of this rich and strange musical land­scape begin to emerge. Or rather, landscapes. For Giuffre never found a single musical Garden of Eden, a definitive style or format he could stay in for long. Like his more celebrated contemporary Miles Davis, Giuffre remains a musical chameleon, a distinctive stylist who constantly feels compelled to change his sonic setting.”
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1969 [p.227]

Almost forty years after I first heard it, I tracked down Jimmy Giuffre and wrote him a letter about how much I enjoyed the music on his Capitol LP – Tangents in Jazz [T-634].

Jimmy was living in Massachusetts and I in San Francisco at the time. Because of  health issues, his wife Juanita helped compose his response. Juanita, a professional photographer, also kindly enclosed a portrait of Jimmy which he had autographed,

In my letter to him, I explained that I had been particularly taken with the four relatively short pieces on the Tangents in Jazz LP entitled Scintilla I-IV.

On the album, the four-parts of Scintilla are sequenced: Scintilla II, Scintilla I, Scintilla IV and Scintilla III.

On a lark, I had decided to re-track these four Scintilla parts and record them in consecutive, numeric sequence.

I had included a copy of a tape recording with the re-sequenced Scintilla I-IV along with my letter to Jimmy.

In his reply, Jimmy shared that this was the first time that he had heard this music in its original order since he wrote and recorded it in June, 1955!

He also explained that although Will McFarland’s liner notes to the LP indicate the four Scintilla pieces being played in numerical order, somehow when the album was being prepared for pressing, it was sequenced according to the Master numbers assigned to each track when they were recorded on June 6,7,10, 1955.

Interestingly, when Mosaic Records reissued these recordings as CDs & LPs as part of their The Complete Capitol and Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre [Mosaic MD6-176], Mosaic also used the master track sequence instead of grouping the four Scintilla tracks as a consecutive, inter-connected musical “suite.”

So what you hear as the audio track to the following video tribute to Jimmy is the four-part Scintilla suite in the original sequence. And unless one has re-tracked and recorded this music in a similar manner, no one has heard this music quite this way before.

The video is followed by Jimmy’s “Questions and Answers” about the music on the album which form the original LP’s liner notes, excerpts from Will McFarland’s descriptions of Scintilla I-IV and a postscript on the album by Ted Gioia.

As an aside, I got to know Artie Anton, the drummer on these tracks, quite well as he was for many years a drum shop proprietor and drum teacher in near-by North Hollywood, CA. He always considered his playing on Jimmy’s 1950s Capitol recordings as “one of my most enjoyable times in music.” He would also declare to anyone who would spare him the time to listen to them that his “… playing on these cuts proves that the drums are a musical instrument [big smile – His]!.”

The puckish trumpet work is provided by the inimitable Jack Sheldon; also prominent on all these performance is the robust bass tone of Ralph Pena who sadly left us much-too-quickly at age 42 because of his involvement in a fatal car accident in Mexico.

A top-level soloist and writer makes his most daring move to date: Jimmy Giuffre sets forth a bold new form for improvised music.

The music is revolutionary; yet its advent was a foreseeable, logical step in jazz maturation. Giuffre's new concept is con­troversial ; its evidence here is a must for serious jazz-followers, yet the range of its appeal is so unpredictable that its cham­pions could include bouncing dilettantes, hard-shell tradition­alists, even jazz-apathists.

Specifically, this music puts on view a quartet that functions without an audible beat — no walking bass, no riding cymbal; yet thanks to Giuffre's indomitable folksiness, this flouting of tradition results in jazz that out-thumps the music of most of his heavy-handed neighbors.

Jimmy answers some leading questions...

Q What is this music?

A Jazz, with a non-pulsating beat. The beat is implicit but not explicit; in other words, acknowledged but unsounded. The two horns are the dominant but not domineering voices. The bass usually functions somewhat like a baritone sax. The drums play an important but non-conflicting role.

Q Why abandon the sounded beat?

A For clarity and freedom. I've come to feel increasingly in­hibited and frustrated by the insistent pounding of the rhythm section. With it, it's impossible for the listener or the soloist to hear the horn's true sound, I've come to believe, or fully concentrate on the solo line. An imbalance of ad­vances has moved the rhythm from a supporting to a com­petitive role.

Q But isn't the sounded beat an integral part of jazz?

A The sounded beat once made playing easier, but now it's become confining. And to the degree that the beat was there to guide dancers, it is, of course, no longer necessary to con­cert jazz. I think the essence of jarz is in the phrasing and notes, and these needn't change when the beat is silent. Since the beat is implicit, this music retains traditional feel­ing; not having it explicit allows freer thinking.

Q Hasn't this been done before, particularly by you?

A Several of today's writers have dropped all sounded beat for contrast, but never for an entire work. I've written works completely lacking sounded beat, but the difference between this music and all previous work is the use of the drums. My previous attempts at this approach, while achiev­ing some of the clarity I sought, were always vaguely un­satisfactory to me until I realized the trouble: the drums, by their nature, cannot carry a simultaneous or overlapping line; when the drum is struck, any other note is obliterated, and attention is torn away from any other line. In this music, the drums' lines are integrated but isolated.

Q How is it possible to ensure this isolation during solos, when tacit is usually unpredictable?

A By writing rests in the ad lib parts, allowing the drums to fill. I strive to write the rests at natural phrase endings, holding restriction to a minimum.

Q But isn't there generally more restriction — don't the solo­ists have a good deal less freedom than before?

A In a sense, they have more freedom. No longer fed a stream of chords, or fighting a pounding beat, they are free to get a more natural sound out of their horns, and try for all sorts of new effects.

Q Didn't you have to select your musicians with extra care?

A Yes, I discussed my plans at length with each of them to make sure they were completely attuned to the project. Artie Anton, the drummer, has had wide band experience; from the beginning he was sympathetic to my new ideas. He is a skilled reader, as is Ralph Pena, a bassist with great sound, jazz feeling and a classical background, who has worked with many big bands and Stan Getz. Pena has re­corded previously with me, as has Jack Sheldon, an ex-Lighthouse trumpeter who has also recorded under his own name. Sheldon is a major soloist, and fits perfectly into my conception of the quartet.

Q This music is such a sharp departure; do you have any mis­givings about making the leap?

A This music is no novelty; it's the result of almost a decade of formal study, the culmination of all my thinking, writing and blowing. To me, it seems like sheer insanity to continue to play against that hammering beat. Classical music, once the rhythm is stated, assumed the freedom to move un­accompanied, and if jazz is going to continue to grow, it needs this same freedom.

Q New styles usually provoke extreme reaction; what sort of general judgment do you hope for?

A Early works in a new style necessarily grope; each new tune helps to expand and define the form; this album is not final. All I really ask for this music is an isolated judgment —for what it is, rather than for what it isn't. It isn't an attempt to compete with, or supplant other forms; I knew when I took the step that I must sacrifice a large segment of the usual jazz audience. It is, I think, jazz, and a swinging music, but those are ambiguous terms. Does it excite in­terest? Is it pleasurable? Does the interest hold up? These are the real questions.

Q You've been considered one of the great blowers with the very sort of rhythm you now flee; are you abandoning it for good?

A As a working musician, I must continue to play other music until the quartet works more steadily, and there are prob­lems — such as the extreme awkwardness of any turnover in personnel. I still enjoy playing with a stomping rhythm section occasionally, but my heart lies here; I believe in this music.

Will McFarland comments on the four Scintilla selections ...

Scintilla One — This bright brief opener, mostly ensemble work, serves both as an introduction to the album and as a basis for three subsequent sparkling variations. There is no improvisa­tion or development as yet, but extensions of the form are heard.

Scintilla Two — The ensemble plays the first eight bars of Scintilla One to introduce a development of that theme — minus extensions. This fast, tough, earnest variation is used as a basis for blowing; it's Giuffre's tenor all the way, very free.

Scintilla Three — Another variation on the root Scintilla, lighter and cute this time, stars the trumpet. Jack Sheldon's depth in running ideas is given plenty of leeway, and the clarinet comments from the middle-ground, half written, half spontaneous.

Scintilla Four — Climaxing the album, Giuffre unveils a stir­ring development and finale: the drums are fingered; there is imitation; all four players take a final four; all previous Scintilla material is recapitulated and used; a couple of canons, and the concert closes.

Ted Gioia,  West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1969 [pp. 235-36, paragraphing modified]

“Despite Giuffre's rhetoric, the pieces on Tangents in Jazz do swing. In many ways the listener is even more drawn to the rhythmic element of the music, by the way it moves from instrument to instrument, instead of resting solely with the "rhythm" section. On Tangents Giuffre was again joined by Pena, Sheldon, and Anton, and though none of them stretches out at length during the course of the album, each is very much put in the spotlight as Giuffre employs a wide range of compositional de­vices: call-and-response figures, two- and three-part counterpoint, unison and harmony lines, canonic devices. These take the place of solos in Giuffre's new conception.

As a filmmaker conveys a sense of momentum through a sequence of rapidly shifting camera angles, Giuffre's constant movement from one musical device to another achieves a similar effect. Part of the achievement of Tangents in Jazz is that, despite the leader's stated disre­gard for a "propulsive" beat, these pieces are constantly propelled, if not by a metronomic beat, certainly by Giuffre's constant changes in compo­sitional focus. If anything, Giuffre overcompensates on Tangents, avoiding lengthy solos and shifting musical gears with abandon. The result is a highly concentrated music—which may be pleasing to the listener, but also makes severe demands on the attention.”