A true arbiter the chamber jazz idiom before it even was one, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre was brought back to vivid life in this much-needed ECM rescue. Engaging a then-acoustic Steve Swallow on bass and a gushing Paul Bley on piano in a twofold session of ruffled play for Verve (who showed no signs of reissuing these great works), Giuffre brought his signature silken tone to an ephemeral trio whose tuneful interactivity made for gobs of affirming music. In a wonderful encapsulating essay, Steve Lake tells us that the group had by this point reached a state of free jazz that dove past the blaring expectations of its current fashion and headed straight into the instincts beating quietly below.
We hear all of this and more from breath one in the album’s first half. While its title, Fusion, may sound tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, Lake reminds us that the term had “nobler connotations” back then, bespeaking something tactile and ahead of its time. A couple of Carla Bley tunes stand out. Of the former, “Jesus Maria” would still the heart of a demon. With a clear and present lyricism, it traipses its way into the mind and redecorates our expectations of what a clarinet can sound like. The rest of Fusion comes from Giuffre, whose own compositions reveal a musician bent on practicing what he preaches. The lilting energy of “Cry, Want” fans its wonders like a deck in a magician’s hands, distracting us with its melody (the card we’ve been forced to pick) in lieu of a desired effect. Even more evocative is “Afternoon,” which imagines sunlit streets, walks hand in hand, and the carefree pleasures of a life given to the moment. “Brief Hesitation” is a slightly halting piece, with more enviable tone from Giuffre, who seems to grow with every breath. For all the reasons above, “Trudgin’” is, to borrow from an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch, positively scrumtrulescent and a personal favorite of the collection.
Honorable mention must also be given to Swallow, whose sheer percussiveness in tracks like “Scootin’ About” and “Venture” is so astute that, at times, one almost hears the cymbals of an absent drum kit.
The companion album, Thesis, again sports another pair of Carla Bley classics. The first, “Ictus,” sets a more freely flowing tone for this set’s second half. The fluid interplay between Bley and Giuffre is pure and subtle magic. From songs by Carla to one about, we arrive at “Carla,” penned by former husband Paul. From Giuffre’s delicate arpeggios to the confident bass support and attuned pianism, this one plunks us right into the spirit of things and is a perfect little thing. Other notables include “Whirrrr,” which puts one in mind the whirligigs of childhood, and the dynamic spread of “The Gamut.” Gordon Jenkins gets a treatment in “Goodbye,” which boasts some downright totemic interactions between Bley and Swallow and piercing overtones from Giuffre, while “That’s True, That’s True” brings dreamy groove back into style. “Me Too” feels like a lost cut from Fusion, and its sprightly energy contrasts whimsically with “Herb & Ictus,” a studio outtake that offers an endearing look at the camaraderie behind the scenes.
Giuffre’s vision spoke in shapes and colors. It was, in a word, painterly. This being my first Giuffre experience, it is one I will always treasure. Warmly recorded and remastered, it is a testament to the communicative skills and equity of the 1960s greats. The music on this essential set is sure to be forever relevant as long as there are those who listen to jazz.
Tyran Grillo - ECM Records
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