Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Jimmy Giuffre 3 on Atlantic, 1958

Back home in Tennessee after a three-week trip to Europe with my wife and three-year-old daughter, I resume the publication of Jazz Flashes with a post about Trav'lin' Light, a lovely album by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with a most unusual lineup.

In 1999, Collectables Records reissued Jimmy Giuffre's 1958 album Trav'lin' Light as a two-fer with Mabel Mercer's aptly titled Merely Marvelous. Other than the fact that they were both issued on Atlantic and that they both feature a trio (La Mercer is actually accompanied by a trio led by pianist Jimmy Lyon), the reason for the pairing of these two records, as much as I like both of them, totally eludes me. Let's concentrate today on the Giuffre album, which is one of my favorites in his long and usually interesting discography. Giuffre, who was born in Dallas, TX, in 1921, is one of the most experimental and forward-looking musicians ever to grace the West Coast jazz scene, and despite his decision to become an educator, he continued making worthwhile albums into the '90s. Giuffre came up through the ranks of the swing bands, playing with Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, and Boyd Raeburn (quite the experimentalist himself), and he wrote Woody Herman's famous tune "Four Brothers," which lent its name to a whole saxophone section of the Herman band. In the 1950s, Giuffre, who could play tenor, baritone, and clarinet (as he does on Trav'lin' Light), emerged as one of the foremost proponents of the cool school, his music invariably characterized by its modern, experimental sound.

Jimmy Giuffre

Jim Hall
In 1956, Giuffre formed the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Peña on bass, but on Trav'lin' Light, only two years later, the lineup had become Giuffre, Hall, and Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, which led some critics to refer to the group as the new Jimmy Giuffre 3. By dispensing with part of the rhythm section and not using piano, bass, or drums, Giuffre lends the sound of this edition of his trio a sparse, minimalist quality that is unique on jazz albums of the period. In the original liner notes for the LP, critic Nat Hentoff refers to the trio's lineup as "intriguing, both in its present capacity to work tri-linear sorcery on the listener and in its indications for the future to other jazz players." Tri-linear sorcery—I can't think of a better, more poetic way of describing what Giuffre, Hall, and Brookmeyer are doing on the eight tracks included here. And there's little doubt that this album foreshadows Giuffre's interest in free jazz in the 1960s; though this isn't free jazz in any way, this record sounds very much ahead of its time, and the three participants are clearly striving to find new, exciting paths for their musical explorations.

Bob Brookmeyer
On these sessions, Giuffre plays mostly clarinet, but he does switch to tenor saxophone on "Show Me the Way to Go Home" and to baritone on "The Swamp People" and "California Here I Come" (the latter, a tune not usually attempted on West Coast dates of the late 1950s), and he plays all three instruments on "Forty-Second Street." Half of the selections are standards, and Giuffre contributes four originals to the album—"The Swamp People," "The Green Country," "The Lonely Time," and "Pickin' 'Em Up and Layin' 'Em Down." Hentoff informs us that the first of these compositions "came into the book as a result of impressions from seeing some of the scenery and people while driving through the swamps," which shouldn't be surprising because most of the album, even the standards, has a definitely impressionistic feel about it. Just listen to the way the trio plays with the melody after briefly stating it on "Trav'lin' Light," for example. Even though this is quite an unusual context, there's a flawless musical understanding between the three men, who never fail to support one another throughout the album, and as a result, the chamber-music sound is very appealing. Upon its release, Billboard called this record "one of the best modern jazz LPs this year" (May 12, 1958) and I have to agree with the anonymous reviewer. I still don't understand why it's been paired with that Mabel Mercer album, though!

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