My real introduction to Vic Chesnutt came through the 1998 collab THE SALESMAN AND BERNADETTE with Nashville, TN greats Lambchop. I’d heard a bit of his work before that, but only in doses, and I tended to think of him as a folkie that primarily resonated with college-rock die-hards. He’d been releasing stuff since the dawn of the ‘90s and, to put a fine point on it, folk wasn’t really in my daily listening diet in that decade’s first half. Sure, I dug a bit of Paleface and Beck Hansen’s excellent ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE LP, but the former was roughly categorized as Anti-folk, sort of a forgotten movement in the present tense, and a rough genre that also spawned Beck’s late-80s New York woodshedding. My occasional dips into folk during this time looked back to the ‘60s and were mostly derived from British sources (Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch etc) or New York weird-folk via ESP Disk (Pearls Before Swine, Erica Pomerance, Ed Askew). I was frankly much more drawn to the fledgling indie rock scene, the constant, often noisy disruptions from the deep underground and the never ending revelations of jazz old and new. Flash forward to the end of the decade, where a creeping sense of personal fatigue had begun to set in, largely with the indie scene, which sorta seemed to be running in place. I started branching out, looking for new kicks, and my interest in all things Lambchop led me right to the late Vic Chesnutt’s door. It’s been a long, extremely satisfying stay. A constant aspect of Chesnutt’s work is a bruised quality that can’t help but be amplified by his Christmas day suicide in 2009. What’s impressive is how his life’s last action hasn’t cast a light of defeat upon his music. Instead it still registers as an act of survival and the sincere need for communication from a man that shouldered with grace and wisdom an oppressive physical burden, being a quadriplegic with limited use of his hands. Where Chesnutt’s early recordings are solo affairs that establish the baseline of his powerful sensibility, his slow move into various modes of collaboration deepened his music, a benefit that extended to the end of his life. In addition to Lambchop, he worked with names as disparate as Widespread Panic, Elf Power, Danger Mouse, Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. Perhaps his best collaborative album is 2007’s NORTH STAR DESERTER, featuring members of the Canadian bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and others, all brought together under the auspices of independent filmmaker Jem Cohen. Probably the thing that I find most attractive about this record overall is how his cohorts push the proceedings into a beefed-up zone that really intensifies the already sweetly burning appeal of Chesnutt’s performing personality, bringing front and center his simultaneously vulnerable and acidic, aching yet acerbic presence for the entirety of the disc's running time. The blunt and sometimes caustic gush of the lyrics (always one of the best factors on any Chesnutt release) combined with both Vic's sturdy, starkly basic self-accompaniment and the razor-sharp contribution of the additional musicians is simply a bittersweet joy to reckon with. There are moments of guitar squall on “Everything I Say” that sit in suburb contrast to passages of harsh quiet, only to build into further crescendos of emotive distortion. I'll emphasize that the diversity of this particular song's passages hold a fluid expertise that keeps the experience safely away from the pitfalls of the soft/loud/soft dynamic as often plied by lesser hands. “You Are Never Alone” is just a goddamned beautiful song that benefits from additional voices on the choruses and flirts with misty-eyed transcendence while wisely avoiding full-on immersion in those sticky waters. And “Splendid” presents one of Vic's familiar thorny song thickets, drenching parts of it with fine moments of amp gunk and wonderfully Zionist string buzz. Along the way it becomes quite plain that Chesnutt was, particularly at this point, just terrifically adept at taking the cumulative disappointments and bad hands that prolonged living deals out and then presenting them, twisted and turned, as songs of shrewd introspection. Some folks call it making lemonade out of existence’s unrelenting lemon dealing, but I like to think I have a little more panache then that. Now the above should not paint a picture of the man as an artist of woe whose recordings only really 'work' when the listener is in solitary confinement near their stereo at 3am. I mean, they work great like that, but the overall thrust of NORTH STAR DESERTER (and Chesnutt’s oeuvre as a whole) walks a nice line between 'loner' and 'bard'. It's not the first disc I'd reach for to soundtrack a drive to the beach (probably not the 538th, either), but it lacks the nudeness of Nick Drake's stuff or the gripping awkwardness of early '90s Lou Barlow at his most darkly confessional. So you can play this in the company of others without inspiring little cartoon thought balloons above their heads that muse over your personal mental health. Not that you should really be that concerned over what other people think of you. But I digress. “Wallace Stevens” is a further reinforcement of the longstanding influence of modern poetry on Vic’s work (a tendency that stretches all the way back to “Stevie Smith” on his 1990 debut LITTLE), and it seems obvious that his interest in the sublime qualities of poetic language is a huge part of why his lyrics are a substantial cut above the attempts of most, resonating with meaning and creative verve that stands tall when divorced from the musical context. That “Wallace Stevens” is the album’s prettiest track, quite captivating in its incomplete brevity, is not only complimentary to the great American poet that inspired it but also to the sincerity of the performer’s tribute. It becomes readily clear that any potential associative grandstanding (you see, I’m inspired by the POETS) is the farthest thing from Chesnutt’s intention. The track “Over” shows Vic going it alone, finding him playfully wrangling a linguistic cliché from the lips of unintentional verbal Dadaist Yogi Berra into an absorbing tale of slyly soft questioning. “Debriefing” holds the disc's best moments of full band interplay, connecting with some strong lyrics that travel deep into the waters of dark resignation. And the short sharp simplicity of “Rattle” ends the record perfectly; existing as a succinct bit of autobiography and also as a potential ready-made theme song for thousands ("I'm keeping it on the road/Can't say I didn't rattle the load/ But I'm keeping it on the road”), it's probably short enough to be used as a cell-phone ring tone. But you'd never stoop to something that crass, would you? I didn't think so.
The very foundation of jazz rests upon figures that are often neglected, unheard or essentially forgotten by the public at large. And while it’s a daunting prospect that as the years pass, worthy artists like Joe Albany, Walter Perkins and Valdo Williams continue to fade even further into the deep recesses of cultural amnesia, it’s also undeniable that this general air of obscurity is part of jazz music’s appeal for serious fans. That is, the emotional rush of discovery when being amazed by a lost record by an unknown player, connecting the dots through various personnel to other unheralded sessions and possibly even to the work of more celebrated improvisers, household legends that sometimes play support roles on strong sessions by names with no more contemporary currency than a handful of obsolete subway tokens: John Coltrane working in the quintet of the fascinating tuba player Ray Draper on NEW JAZZ 8228 springs to mind as one example. Now, in the grand scheme of things Jimmy Giuffre is far from an unknown jazzman. A progressive composer and multi-instrumentalist who struck out as a leader in the incredibly fertile period of ’55-’65, he already had work as an arranger for big-band mainstay Woody Herman under his belt, writing the hit “Four Brothers” for Herman’s excellent Second Herd in ’47. Giuffre’s own early records are interesting in how they avoid the norms of Hard-Bop and Cool-Jazz that dominated the period. It’s true that he was an exponent of the West Coast Cool school, playing with Shorty Rogers after leaving Herman, but on his own Giuffre lacked any intrinsic ties to the laid-back, often proto-Playboy-isms that made the Cool sound so appealing to cads and chicks all over the landscape of ‘50s America. His first two LPs for Capitol do hold moments of overt West Coast tendencies, but the path of his playing quickly led to a different sort of laid-backness, far more invested in “blues-based folk-jazz” to use the man’s own concise description. By the appearance of THE JIMMY GIUFFRE 3 in 1957, he was firmly out of the shadow of the Cool and squarely in the sunshine of his own impressive sensibility. While Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker get a lot of deserved props for their pianoless quartet from ’52, what Giuffre set in motion with his first trio is arguably more impressive; a lineup of bass, guitar and horns. Simultaneously relaxed and introspective, engagingly melodious and uniquely intuitive, the group were really unlike anything else happening in jazz at the time, but so low-key in operation (laid-back, again) that they weren’t really grasped and appreciated by anyone other than studious or zealous listeners. The trio’s somewhat easy-going, approachable air shouldn’t be taken as a lack of intensity; if the group’s music is explicitly relaxed it also holds an implicit power that’s helped it to span the decades as far more than a curiosity of its period. Giuffre’s sense of collaborators is superb, with Jim Hall’s flawless guitar and Ralph Pena’s supple bass engaging in wondrous elevated interplay. This is the sound of three beings approaching their chosen endeavor with a rigorous yet unforced equality, each player contributing an essential weave of dialogue to the flowing, loose focus of the whole. Any dominance that the familiarity of horns might promote is quickly lessened by the spacious interaction of all three instruments, the music sidestepping any inclinations toward virtuosity or showiness in favor of an expression of collective beauty. Nobody falls into a role of support, and rarely has jazz experimentation arrived on a recording with such deceptively casual discipline. Yes, the blues is here in spades, but it registers as strikingly different from the prevailing hard-driving mode of the post-boppers, which was very much about sweating it out and advancing the Modern Jazz language on the bandstand/in the studios and prevailing as a collective of downtrodden angels defining the parameters of street-level professionalism. In contrast, The Giuffre 3 feel like a workshop band, and one that was far less tied to the developments of Bop. In this sense, they remind me of some of Mingus’s prime stuff, in tactics if not sound. Giuffre’s employs three horns, the clarinet and tenor/baritone saxophones, and with them he brings an added sense of tonal variation to an already healthy sonic palate, playing with impressive richness and self-control in an environment that would amplify every misstep or bad decision. Hall’s work is as authoritative and sensitive as anywhere I’ve heard him, clean and brisk and communicative and dare I say tasteful on an instrument that, in the wrong hands, can produce little more than clichés or unfortunate ideas. Only the strongest bass players can thrive within the trio context, where so much more is required than just walking the rhythm and giving an occasional solo. Pena proves his ability, and it’s a shame that he was so under-recorded in appropriate situations. This album, originally released on Atlantic, has been given a nice LP reissuing by the label Jazz Track, and it’s a fine place to begin experiencing Giuffre’s work. It includes “The Train and the River”, probably his best known tune after “Four Brothers”, and the whole record really catches him at just the right point of growth and full bodied expression, ultimately serving as a fine introduction. This edition tacks on one extra cut from a subsequent trio of Hall and Jim Atlas that’s certainly very good; to be blunt though, it simply doesn’t fit thematically. This isn’t a complaint, but rather an observation. Those unfamiliar with the original LP might not notice. Guiffre went on to record a slew of important discs over the six years following this release, including three masterpieces with a trio including pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow; two in ‘61 for Verve (FUSION and THESIS, paired up in ’92 on a double CD by the German ECM label) and the simply amazing FREE FALL for Columbia in ’63. Those albums are an undisputed highpoint of the early jazz avant-garde, featuring an idiosyncratic sound that, unlike the work of Coleman, Coltrane and Taylor from the same period, curiously didn’t inspire a later group of disciples from within the ranks of the free scene. It’s now part of jazz lore how that trio broke up after a night where they played a set that earned them thirty-five cents apiece. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s some tough fucking luck. But in the end it’s all okay, for Guiffre bounced back, going on to record some high quality stuff later, particularly in the ‘70s (THE TRAIN AND THE RIVER for Candid Choice in ’75 is a definite highlight) before his death from pneumonia in 2008. THE JIMMY GIUFFRE 3 remains one of his strongest works, a record that proves how in the halls of jazz history obscurity and neglect are often indicative of substantial artistic worth.