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© Henk Kahle

Joe Giardullo : Three Stories

If you know Joe Giardullo’s music, then you are aware of his individual approach and important contributions to modern improvised music, in both small and large ensembles. If you don’t know his music, then you should check him out live, which can be difficult here in the states, or pick up some of his recordings. People that complain about the “sacred cows” of free jazz will meet their match here, because Joe Giardullo is the real thing, and talking and listening to him will reveal truths about music and life. I think that is why a lot of us are drawn to improvised music, no?

So, after meeting up with Joe on a rainy March Sunday in New York City, I decided to opt not for the tedious reprint of what was an enthralling conversation, but instead for a glimpse into three pivotal moments in an ever unfolding story of artistry and survival. The three stories that I will convey involve three giants in the music: John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, and Joe McPhee.

Giant Steps
Joe Giardullo got his start in music playing alto saxophone in R&B bands on Long Island. At 13, the 40 bucks these gigs paid burned a hole in his pocket and inevitably found him in his local record shop buying every R&B album that they had in stock. Finally, when Joe had cleaned out the section labeled “Rhythm and Blues”, he found a bin with one word scribbled on it, “Saxophone”. Inside, he found an album by John Coltrane entitled, Giant Steps. Now, for a kid who up to this moment had only heard the gutbucket saxophone of R&B workhorses, suddenly he was putting his phonograph needle to the sounds of one of Coltrane’s masterworks. Frightened and unable to follow what he was hearing, Joe put the album back in its sleeve and tucked it safely in the middle of his collection. He did not want to find it, and it was 12 years before he finally tackled the compositions and playing of Coltrane. But once he mastered the tunes and could play them note for note, he put the album away again.

“Once you know something, you can’t pretend that you don’t know it.”

Joe Giardullo was not going to be a copycat, which is good, because if John Coltrane was a gun slinging... I think you know where that leads... to a lot of dead copycats.

Anthony Braxton, Four Orchestras, and an Extra Copy of Stockhausen
In 1979, after passing a manuscript audition for Anthony Braxton, Giardullo began doing work in Woodstock for Braxton’s Four Orchestras project. One day, Joe stopped by Braxton’s house to pick up some material for transcription. Braxton was having breakfast, so Joe joined him and afterwards Braxton mentioned a composer by the name of Stockhausen. He happened to have two copies of a Stockhausen LP, so he gave one to Giardullo and told him to listen to it. Giardullo accepted the gift and upon returning to work on the Braxton material, he was met at the door by a disapproving Braxton who asked him what he was doing. “Not listening to Stockhausen”, said Braxton. So, Giardullo put aside his work, peeled the plastic off of the new album and began to hear something the likes of which he had never heard before. Unlike the Coltrane music that had put the fear into young Giardullo, this music for two pianos and a ring modulator opened a new door for him and was a major turning point. The gift from Braxton was no mere record album, it was a window into the possibilities of musical self expression, and it is perhaps the most important moment in Giardullo’s musical and artistic development.

“What Planet Are You From?”
Joe Giardullo played virtually no gigs in the 1980s. His wife gave birth to his only son in 1981, and Giardullo did not want the life of the absentee musician father. Instead he opted for the day job, first teaching music in prisons, and then starting a marble and granite business that he ran successfully for many years. The practicing continued during this period, and Giardullo’s soprano playing evolved without anyone there to hear it. Steve Lacy, along with Sidney Bechet, were huge influences on his playing, but what ultimately emerged from this period of seclusion was a fully realized voice on the soprano saxophone.

In 1990, Joe was invited to join in on a weekly Sunday night jam session at a local restaurant. When it was his turn to get up and play, Joe noticed that Joe McPhee was also getting up for the tune, and he was also playing the soprano saxophone. Once the nerves subsided, the two Joes tore through ten minutes of unaccompanied duo soprano. It was the first time that the two had met, and it was the beginning of what has become a strong musical and personal friendship. After the gig, McPhee approached Giardullo with one simple question, “What planet are you from?”

These days, Joe Giardullo divides his time between solo soprano—the excellent No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy (Drimala) being one result of that exploration—small groups such as his tenor/bass/drums side project, and larger ensemble work with his G2 project. He may be getting older, but the youthful sense of curiosity that has driven Joe Giardullo at every step of his career still points him in new directions. There are still more records in the bin.