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Gravity's Rainbow

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Joe Giardullo released the album Red Morocco last year, and The Pearl Road is due for release next year. - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Joe Giardullo released the album Red Morocco last year, and The Pearl Road is due for release next year.


In the liner notes to Red Morocco, the 2007 release by saxophonist and composer Joe Giardullo’s Open Ensemble on France’s RogueArt label, jazz authority John Szwed describes the session: “The results are elegant, shimmering, ringing music, like colors spiking across the plane of a Monet canvas, or spinning like a piece of Calder’s kinetic art; a constantly moving, deeply sonic performance, collectively improvised, and decentered; a self-organizing musical system, with minimal input or constraints from outside. Giardullo is willing into existence a music that occurs beyond his control.” Szwed, who has authored award-winning books on Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Jelly Roll Morton, is grappling with what Giardullo calls his G2 Music, or Gravity 2 Music; an updated version of the compositional approach he developed in the mid 1970s, then known simply as Gravity Music. But what, exactly, is all this Gravity business about, and what’s the difference between the old and new models?

Leaning into his latte in a Kingston coffeehouse, the white-bearded Giardullo, attempts an explanation. “Most Western music is based on functional harmony,” he offers. “That is, it’s the harmony that moves the material, the chords that dictate the movement. Which is fine, but I don’t find that very interesting. Gravity [Music] is about not making any one particular aspect of the music more important than the others; it’s about having no solos and being omniharmonic, of giving equal weight to every pitch, every note. To play it correctly, you really have to leave your ego out of it—in fact, [Down Beat critic] Francis Davis said my first record [1979’s Gravity] was the most democratic music there was. The reason I call the method I use now Gravity 2 is because during the first period I was doing all of this without really understanding what it was that I was doing. Now I see more how it works, and that affects the music. So I wanted to make a distinction. It was just something I had to go through to get to this point.”

There were, of course, other things the Cottekill resident went through before he arrived at his current spot in the avant-jazz firmament. Giardullo, a primarily self-taught soprano specialist who also plays tenor, sopranino, flute, and bass clarinet, was born in Brooklyn in 1948 and at the age of seven moved to Long Island, where he discovered rhythm and blues. “I was part of a clique that was really into that stuff before it crossed over into the pop charts,” he recalls. “James Brown, The Falcons with Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave—all of those guys.” By the time he was 14, Giardullo was playing with R&B bands up down the East Coast on weekends. “My folks were cool with it, as long as I kept my grades up and didn’t get into trouble,” he says. “It was an easy deal for me. And until I got into college, I thought R&B was the be-all and end-all.”

College was SUNY New Paltz, a school that Giardullo selected at random. Or maybe it selected him. “I had qualified for a scholarship to the state college of my choice, and I just blindly picked it out of the guidebook,” he says. “I didn’t know anything at all about the town, or know any of the students. The first time I saw New Paltz was the day I arrived to move into the dorm.” And in 1967, once his studies were under way, he found himself drawn to another area he knew little about: Indian music. It proved to be a revelation. “There was a course being offered on Indian music, an elective,” the saxophonist recalls. “I signed up for it, but since I was the only one who did, they decided to cancel it. I ended up working out a deal with the teacher to get private lessons, and it really turned my head around. I was really focused on the rhythms, which are just a matrix of possibilities, since the beats can be subdivided in a million different ways.”

Giardullo continued his immersion in Indian forms for another seven years and eventually became attracted to New Thing jazz, studying sporadically with trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Donald Cherry. But the next major turning point occurred when he came across jazz composer George Russell’s book on his Lydian Chromatic Theory of Tonal Organization. A concept that utilizes scales or a series of scales known as modes instead of chords or harmonies, Russell’s methodology greatly influenced the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, and others. “It’s a totally true approach to understanding music, that’s the only way I can explain it,” says Giardullo. “Whenever I hear something that’s confusing, Russell’s ideas will always open it up for me.”

Another artist whose ears had been opened by Russell’s theory is influential pianist and composer Paul Bley, who Giardullo met by chance at a Kingston bus stop in the late ‘70s. As the two shared the ride, Giardullo showed Bley a few of the experimental scores he had with him. Impressed, Bley offered encouragement that later led to the sessions for Gravity that feature Giardullo’s Creative Chamber Ensemble.

Unbeknownst to Giardullo, however, at around the same time as his fateful meeting with Bley, Giardullo’s Indian music teacher had sent copies of the same scores to her own teacher, the iconic Paris Conservatoire composer-educator Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger, instructor to George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Paul Bowles, and legions of others, was also impressed—enough to invite the young saxist-composer to attend her classes. Unfortunately, a lack of funding prevented him from going.

Eventually, though, Giardullo did make it to Europe, and from 1977 through 1980 divided his time between the continent and the Hudson Valley. He spent most of his European sojourns in Amsterdam, a city famous for its vital free jazz scene, and worked with many of the other American avant players also drawn to the city. During one of his upstate stays he began an association with revered saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, for whom he worked as a transcriber and who sponsored Giardullo’s receiving of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1979. Braxton also introduced Giardullo to the music of influential German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, which had a galvanizing effect on Giardullo’s own compositions and led to his discovery of another, even greater, influence, Stockhausen contemporary Luciano Berio.

But despite all of his growth as a composer, by 1981 Giardullo found himself growing frustrated as a performer.
“I wasn’t really working in Europe that much, and the scene [in the US] had become really depressing. People just weren’t appreciating the music,” he says. “And my wife and I had started a family. So I decided to stop playing out for a while.” He lanched a successful marble and granite business, took part in a program that taught music in prisons, and continued to compose in private. But it would be another chance meeting, 10 years later, that brought him back to the bandstand.

“I was out to see a local performance and I ran into [internationally known multi-instrumentalist] Joe McPhee,” says Giardullo. “We started talking and he got me excited about playing out again. He’s my bro, one of the greatest people on the planet.” (McPhee was profiled in the June 2007 issue of Chronogram.) In addition to directly supporting his re-emergence, the Poughkeepsie-based McPhee introduced Giardullo to Kingston composer and Deep Listening Institute founder Pauline Oliveros, with whom he has since played and who has commissioned and performed several of his works.

Since the fateful meeting with McPhee, Giardullo’s resurgence has become a high-gear affair. In addition to more commissions, residencies, and regular engagements in New York and abroad, the saxophonist has loosed a string of well-received recordings: Primal Intentions (2001, Cadence Jazz Records), Specific Gravity (2001, Boxholder Records), Language of Swans and Shadow and Light (both 2002, Drimala Records), Art Spirit (2003, Boxholder), Now Is and Falling Water (both 2002, Drimala), No Work Today (2005, Drimala), Weather (2007, Not Two Records), and the aforementioned Red Morocco. (The Pearl Road is due out on the Mode label in 2009.)

On hand for the recording of Red Morocco, Szwed in his notes offers a glimpse of Giardullo’s singular technique as a bandleader: “[After dispensing vaguely mapped lead sheets and instructions, Giardullo] quietly asks the musicians to be gracious in allowing things to happen, to resist the need to lead or to react to everything around them. Rather, they should be committed to whatever they are doing, no matter how small it is, for ‘small ideas can be strong if you are committed to them.’” Szwed also describes the leader’s often impressionistic approach as being painterly; indeed, Giardullo himself says it’s “like Jackson Pollock stuff.”

For Red Morocco’s 14-member Open Ensemble, Giardullo tapped David Arner, the former organizer of Kingston’s much-missed New Vanguard Series, who contributes xylophone instead of his usual piano. “For me as a musician, there was nothing else quite like [the session],” says Arner. “Joe has a very particular vision; even though he doesn’t directly control any of the notes per se, with G2 he’s found a way to control the music as it’s being played. It is very open, no one sound dominates. But collectively there’s still a melodic line being made. And when you’re playing it you have to really pay attention [to Giardullo’s directions] in a very intense, particular way. After we’d finish a tune, it would feel like I’d spent all day in a dark room and then walked out into the sunlight.”

While Giardullo’s current schedule is certainly keeping him occupied—on the books are more New York gigs and fall tours of Europe—he maintains he’s looking forward to entering another relaxed period in the coming year. While leaning toward keeping most of his gigs local, he’s especially excited about being involved in the recently opened art/performance co-op space High Falls Wonderland. “I even volunteered to work in the box office,” he says. He also has some more music he’d like to perform and record.

“I’ve been working on something with instrumentation for five players, the next Gravity project,” he says. “So right now, that’s what’s up in the air.”

Joe Giardullo’s Language of Swans Trio, featuring bassist Reuben Radding and drummer Todd Capp, will play at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York on August 13.

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