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April 28 , 2008

Jimmy Giuffre 1921-2008

Jimmy Giuffre died last week, a few days short of his 87th birthday, from pneumonia and complications related to the Parkinson’s Disease which had forced his retirement from the road in the mid-1990s.

One of the great reedmen of jazz and a peerless clarinettist, Giuffre, born in Dallas in 1921, first made history in the 1940s as a big band arranger, his “Four Brothers” becoming a signature tune for Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. He also arranged for Buddy Rich and Boyd Raeburn. By the mid-50s he was working the other end of the sound spectrum with his own drummerless trios, with Jim Hall on guitar. Then, he spoke of a blues-based folk jazz and showed how intensity could be redefined in the context of quiet songs.

Giuffre was inspired, too, by European chamber music and by the new jazz directions set in motion by Ornette Coleman. These influences were brought together in the contrapuntal improvising of his trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow in 1960, a genuinely ahead-of-its time ensemble. The trio’s experimentation, sometimes taking off from compositions of the then-unknown Carla Bley, often left the audience behind, but musicians were taking notes, especially in Europe, and the austerity and intelligence of the Giuffre 3’s music has influenced successive generations of players exploring free improvisation and chamber jazz. After recording “Fusion” and “Thesis” for Verve (reissued as “1961” on ECM) and “Free Fall” (Columbia), Giuffre reorganized his trio, pushing musical exploration forward in a new group with Barre Phillips and Don Friedman...

The lyrical inventiveness of Giuffre’s music was a reference point for producer Manfred Eicher when founding ECM: it still is, all these many years later.

“Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961” was issued by ECM in 1992. As Konrad Heidkamp wrote in Die Zeit: “One can talk of chamber jazz. One can also talk of a musical revelation. Giuffre, Bley and Swallow played with a mixture of intelligence and impressionistic transparency. Their sense of abstraction is not cold, their sensuality never overbearing. They do not shy away from swinging to a walking bass, yet just as readily they set that swing free-floating.”