Art Spirit
Boxholder BXH 028

Language of Swans
Drimala DR 02-347-05

Now that jazz is supposedly in one of its periodic boomlets of almost-popularity, the public is starting to take notice of exploratory improvisers who have been plugging away on their own for many years.

Case in point is multi-reedist Joe Giardullo, who first recorded in 1980, and who has been going full tilt as a first-class improviser since the early 1990s. But it’s only in the past half decade or so that he has gained notice for his work in Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band and in different formations with woodwind/brass master Joe McPhee.

To add substance to the delay between artistry and audience appreciation, both of these newly released CDs date from the late 1990s, ART SPIRIT from 1997, and LANGUAGE OF SWANS from the next year. Not unlike suddenly acclaimed works by prominent visual artists that are discovered and reassessed after the painter gains fame, they show that the inventiveness and technique of 2003’s Giardullo was also in evidence five and six years ago.

Visual metaphors seem to come easily to the reedist. He describes his duets with guitarist Sangeeta Michael Berardi, another neglected experimenter, as “paintings and drawings”, and the trio CD with bassist Chris Sullivan and drummer/pianist Michael Thompson appears to aurally encompass painterly musical colors as well as those suggested by the elegance of those floating fowl. Both discs seem to have been created in a meditative, mystical frame of mind. While there are interesting parts on the two discs, there are times that they become a little too perilously monochromic.

Low-key throughout, LANGUAGE OF SWANS’s 14¼-minute title track shows how the three players interact in a leisurely fashion. Although Thompson and Sullivan have functioned as a rhythm section for the likes of vocalist Barbara Sfraga, nowhere do standard patterns come into play. Instead Giardullo’s dissonant and intermittent bass clarinet reverberations are met with discontinuous drum beats and bass strings constructing short spherical patterns around them. Nuanced and anticipatory the two also cope with dissonant higher overtones from the woodwind, while Giardullo — on flute— and Sullivan later show affinity for each other’s conceptions in a passage that allows them to operate in close harmony as the drummer splashes his cymbals swan-like not far away.

Thompson briefly shows off a command of romantic, contemporary piano on “A Tear for the Missing” meshed with delicate alto sax lines, as well as his versatility on bell and box drum on “Rivers”. Carnatic in concept, with the percussionist sounding as if he’s playing a tabla, Giardullo’s simple chirping soprano sax lines cleverly integrates into acoustic sound picture with Sullivan’s bass line more felt than heard.

“Early Spring”, sort of a bebop chamber music piece, is the bassman’s showcase, providing him with an outlet for his string tugs and double-stopping pizzicato. Condensed press rolls and cymbal strokes add to the broken rhythm of the instant composition. High-pitched multiphonics are Giardullo’s contribution, but there are times he strays perilously close to parody snake-charmer territory.

According to Giardullo in ART SPIRIT’s booklet notes, the subject of his collaboration with Berardi “is sound alone, so the brushstrokes are breaths, picks, sustains, silences … the paintings are only completed when they are heard.” All well and good, but some of the tracks show why painting is rarely a dual activity.

In the past, Berardi recorded a session featuring tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, trombonist Roswell Rudd and drummer Rashied Ali among others. But any trace of the New Thing seems to absent here replaced by a sort of brawny New Age-ism. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Yet the guitarist’s influences, which appear to encompass Jimi Hendrix’s flash and Lenny Breau’s subtlety, often seem to result in tracks a little too pure, yet meandering. A linear player, the reedist finds his pace reduced to adagio on most of the tunes here, with techniques like circular breathing, tongue slaps and pitch shifting only able to take him so far.

“Spirit Window”, the final track, is also the CD’s highpoint. Here, Giardullo’s flute tone turns gritty as he solos, while the guitarist produces flailing reverberations and overtones. Advancing at a rousing clip, Berardi creates a waterfall of single notes and Giardullo hits one protracted passage of pure overblowing just before the end. If everything else on this CD had been at the same high level then this would have been an exceptional, must-get disc.

In truth the session does improve as it reaches the end. “Touched” for instance, features shards of high-pitched split tones being passed around by the saxophone until he develops a droning vibrato to match the guitar’s distinctive single note fuzz tones. Trouble is, it sounds as if Berardi is about the break out into Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at any moment. The penultimate tune finds the acoustic-sounding guitar accompaniment spiraling from somnolent to speed, allowing Giardullo to wiggle out some harsh, irregular vibratos from his horn.

Earlier though, legato is the name of the game, as small notes are fanned out from the guitarist’s fleet fingers. Right in the middle of the CD, though, things reach a nadir on a couple of tracks where guitar buzzes and sax blasts are subsumed into unsubstantial meandering. Gorgeously pure flute tone colors and swirling string lines take the foreground in pieces both repetitive and languid.

Should the interplay of guitar and woodwinds be your thing — or if you have an abiding interest in Giardullo’s or Berardi’s earlier efforts — you may be more impressed with this CD. The reedist’s work with new playing partners and the plectrumist’s technique suggest that a rematch may cause many more sparks to fly. Maybe the added color of another instrument could create a finer aural painting. Right now, though, certainly compared to the other disc, it seems that LANGUAGE OF SWANS shouldn’t be that trio’s swan song.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Swans: 1. Rivers 2. Fledge 3. Early Spring 4. A Tear for the Missing 5. Migrations 6. The Language of Swans 7. Black Swan

Personnel: Swans: Joe Giardullo (soprano and alto saxophones, bass clarinet, flute); Chris Sullivan (bass); Michael Thompson (drums, box drum, bell, piano)

Track Listing: Spirit: 1. Blisterioso 2. Music House 3. Pietrasanta 4. Aspectations 5. Art Spirit 6. Touched 7. Bilbao Curve 8. Spirit Window

Personnel: Spirit: Joe Giardullo (soprano and alto saxophones, bass clarinet, flute); Sangeeta Michael Berardi (guitar)