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Gravity's Rainbow

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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.”

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