JAZZ DIARY / Sounds of silence: Phil Johnson meets the reformed trio of Giuffre, Bley and Swallow

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At heavy metal concerts fans have been known to stick their heads into the bass bins of the PA system in an attempt to wring that extra notch of volume from a performance. In jazz, where such behaviour would be regarded as uncouth, the music is usually loud enough anyway. According to the pianist Paul Bley, the earliest New Orleans players trumpeted their prowess by playing as loudly as possible. With the coming of amplification, the tendency to turn up the dial more than strictly necessary became the dominant convention. Playing quietly and forcing people to really listen has never been unfashionable, but for the trio of Jimmy Giuffre, Bley and Steve Swallow - who begin a Contemporary Music Network tour this month - quietness is all. The musicians not only vie to see who can sound the softest, they even play chicken by competing to see who will be the first to break the silence and play at all.

Of course some music has to wait for public acceptance; but it has been a particularly long time coming for the Jimmy Giuffre 3's albums of the early Sixties. ECM's recent re-release of Fusion and Thesis - originally recorded for Verve in 1961 - has led to universal praise; at the time the group couldn't get arrested. They broke up, says Swallow, 'because it seemed absurd to continue to work in coffee houses on Bleeker Street for a dollar or two each night. We all had to find something else that would put bread on the table.' The problem was not just that the music was experimental - abandoning fixed metre, tempi and chord changes - but that it was so damned quiet.

The group's unique approach came partly from Coleman, partly from Debussy, and partly from Giuffre's desire to rehabilitate the clarinet as a jazz instrument. As a member of swing bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman in the Forties, Giuffre had been one of the prime exponents of the clarinet. Later, he came to feel that the old liquorice stick didn't seem to fit new jazz. 'I was asked why I didn't play it any more,' says Giuffre, now 71, 'so I got it out and started to play in my bedroom, sort of quiet, just playing as easily as I could. I discovered that was the way that I felt. I brought it on to the stage with Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne and we ended up having to play real quiet. The clarinet was so quiet that Shorty had to use a mute on his trumpet, but he found that it worked out very well.'

Giuffre's aim became clearer when he heard a piece by Debussy, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. 'I loved it and thought that if Debussy can do it, I can do it. I got together with guitarist Jim Hall and formed a drummer-less trio.' A summer spent teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in 1960 gave Giuffre further pause for thought; this was the famous year that Ornette Coleman - then largely unknown - was invited to attend. 'I was knocked out,' says Giuffre. 'They were rehearsing the big band and Ornette wasn't playing because he couldn't read the music. Bill Russo, who was conducting, pointed to him and said 'Play the blues' and he just blew and it was going for the moon.'

Meanwhile, the pianist Paul Bley had been leading a band at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. When one night they brought along Coleman and Don Cherry to sit in, Bley faced a serious problem. 'I went outside with Carla (the composer Carla Bley, then his wife) and we realised that we had to hire these guys even though their music was so off the wall that we'd end up getting fired. We managed to hold on for a month or so, but every time the band played the audience went out to the car park.'

When they heard Coleman had been invited to Lenox, the Bleys packed up and drove to Massachusetts to join him. 'We arrived at midnight on the last night, on the last set of the final jam session, on the last tune of the set. They kindly allowed me to sit in. As a result, I ended up being hired by Giuffre for the trio.' The bassist Swallow remained the missing link. An undergraduate at Yale, where he had played informally with Bley, Swallow packed in his course and moved to New York, presenting himself at Bley's doorstep. 'Paul needed a bass player,' Swallow says, 'and he liked the way that I played. When Jimmy needed a new bass player, Paul suggested me. Fusion was the first recording session I had ever been on.'

As well as Fusion and Thesis, the group recorded a third album, Free- Fall, for Columbia in 1963, that has yet to be disinterred. 'It was the key to everything,' says Giuffre. 'It went quite a bit further. There, we don't particularly use tempo at all. Now we're back together again, we do. The music has really blossomed. It's like we've been hibernating.'

Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, supported by the pianist Don Pullen and his trio, play the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday 15 October (071-928 8800). They then tour to Cambridge, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham. 'The Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961' is available on ECM.

If you've ever walked into a record store with your mind brimming with prospective purchases, only to find that you've forgotten everything once faced by the massed ranks of albums and CDs, the new Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette could prove a valuable aide-memoire. It's hardly pocket-size - even limited to currently available releases, it runs to more than 1,200 pages and 7,000 albums. The editors, Richard Cook and Brian Morton, provide a handy star rating for discs, ranging from the accolade of five stars for what Cook calls 'desert island discs' to one for 'awful'. According to Morton, the project has taken 'two years of writing and 20-plus of listening'. Forced to come up with a top three, Cook chose Mugsy Spanier 1931 and 1939 on BBC Records, Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins on Original Jazz Classics and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven on JSP. Morton plumped for Thelonious Monk's Genius of Modern Music on Blue Note, George Lewis's Homage to Charles Parker on Black Saint and any of Charlie Parker's Savoy recordings.

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