Joe Giardullo

I nterview with Clifford Allen
December 2008


Soprano and tenor saxophonist Joe Giardullo was born in Brooklyn in 1948. Though not as well known as some of his contemporaries in modern improvisation, his work as a soprano saxophone soloist stems from figures like Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton, with a penchant for organizing sound in isolated units across a broad area that recalls the music of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith. After debuting on record in 1979 with the large ensemble work Gravity (Breeze Records) and assisting Anthony Braxton on the saxophonist's Four Orchestras project (Arista, 1979), Giardullo ceased public performance until a chance meeting with Joe McPhee in 1991. Since that time, he has recorded solo, in duets with McPhee or violinist Carlos "Zingaro," and in a notable "free" quartet with McPhee, bassist Mike Bisio and Tani Tabbal. More recently, Giardullo has recorded Gravity-related music on Red Morocco, a triumphant return to orchestration released on Rogue Art in 2007. Since recording Red Morocco, he has convened a trio with bassist Reuben Radding and drummer Todd Capp, which explores Giardullo's music as well as that of other improvising composers like Paul Motian and Annette Peacock. This year will also see the release of a duo with Harvey Sorgen—an exploration of intensity between two longtime collaborators—as well as more of his large ensemble work. He continues to hold workshops utilizing parts of his Gravity Music concepts; in the words of recent participant, drummer Ravish Momin, "it was a very Zen approach, 'don't listen but be gracious to the other performers.'"
Writer Clifford Allen caught up with Giardullo in Woodstock, New York near his home in December 2008 to talk about the evolution of his approach to music, the saxophone, teaching, and art.


How did you get started on this path and what was inspiring about it?

I started playing when I was nine years old and R&B was the music I heard. As soon as I could, I began playing tenor – I was 13 going on 14 when I started working, and I thought R&B was the greatest music in the world. Then I heard John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, and that defined jazz to me, not Sonny Stitt or any of the bebop players. I'd get up in the morning and play Dolphy or Mingus, and then I realized I had to really learn the music and that understanding pushed me in a certain direction – probably the wrong one, but at least it was interesting! I quit playing in the early 70s, just put down the horn because I was in the city and working a regular job. Then I moved back up here to Woodstock, ran into some old friends and I had my horn and started playing again. I got my first soprano up here and that was when I started listening to the Art Ensemble and the AACM guys. That was the path I wanted to be on – and there was no work.
George Russell opened doors for me. His music and his theory allowed me to understand completely the omnivalent implications of any note followed by any other note. I know twelve ways of regarding any given note, and I can probably hear eight or nine of them. I'm not a microtonal player and though people write that about me, I don't think like that. I get emails from people asking about my choice of notes, asking why I play that particular note. Well, that comes right out of Russell. On the soprano, I can change an ensemble not only because of how high I play, but also my choice of notes. I'll tell you this anecdote. When I played with Bobby Bradford and Vinny Golia in Portugal in 2003, we had three or four gigs together, and they were at the end of their tour so they were very solid. I went back to my hotel after the second gig and I got a call from the desk that some people wanted to see me. It was a young couple who had brought me a bottle of wine. They found out from the promoter where I was staying and the guy said they'd seen me for both nights. He said, as soon as you played one note, that band changed immediately. "You stood there and played one note and you turned the band on its head." He heard that as something positive, but I'm very aware of the implications. It might also make it difficult for people to hire me. I know I'm a weird player, but I can't go back and change that. People didn't hire [Steve] Lacy either – he had the same impact on bands. When he played with Gil Evans, it was different – Gil heard his voice as the center of the band.

It's difficult to provide a vocabulary for this music; "jazz" isn't sufficient to describe it, "improvised music" isn't either. It's interesting to me to hear that you found the essence of this music in Dolphy, Coltrane, Mingus and the Art Ensemble rather than bebop. Are there any thoughts you might have as to whether you might fit into a certain continuum?

I hadn't thought about it like that. On soprano, I know I'm a descendent of Lacy. I also have a great affinity for trumpet players and always have – Leo Smith.. if I could play the trumpet like him or Don Cherry. When I speak about players it's often the trumpeters. I thought the idea of a jazz language, by the time I got to it, had been codified so much – "this is how you do it" – I didn't understand why anybody played music that way. Dolphy didn't, even though he could. Trane could and did, and then moved beyond. A lot of people say that you have to do this before you do that, but that's just nonsense. What you have to be able to do is know what it is you're about, and then get there. That's all you need to know. You only need the technique to do what you want to do; people tell you that you need that other stuff, but you don't. Many players get overwhelmed with technique and never break out of it. [Joe] McPhee was over at my house and he said, yeah, you can do a lot of things.. Which was not a compliment but an indictment. I understood it right away. What is it that I want to do and need to do, not what am I able to do? There are geniuses and there are the rest of us. We need more to get our ideas over. But it's like cooking – if you put a little too much of an ingredient in, you'll ruin it. The path I'm on is to try and balance things based on what I think moves the music forward. You have to be curious, because you don't know what the end result is. That's the beauty of it. Once you discover that you know something, that's a curse too – you have a choice of either acting on it or ignoring it, and if you ignore it that's awful.
Sometimes it's very hard to act on what you know in the face of what you thought you knew. Once you know you know it, you don't have a choice. I didn't know that when I was 20, or when I was 40, so I learned it sometime after that. I played a solo concert a couple of years ago in Champaign Urbana, Illinois, and after there was discussion with the audience. Somebody asked, why do you play music like that? It wasn't confrontational; it was simply a question of why. I'd never thought about it, but my answer came very quickly: I do it because I learn. The person then said, what do you learn? I said I didn't know, but I know I learn something every time. Sometimes it's about me, sometimes it's about the music, and sometimes it's about something else – but it's always a revelation.
One of the circumstances that I have to deal with and that everybody else has who plays this music – with very few exceptions – has to deal with is that we don't get to perform it often enough to learn on the stand. In the glory days of bebop, they would play a three-week stand, six days a week, with four or five sets a night to the same people. Those who came on Tuesday stayed through the night and came back Wednesday, and so on, for four or five sets. On the third night of the third week on the fourth set, what do you play? You have to find the music to play. That's how those players developed. There was a psychological price to pay, of course. I think some of it became very intellectual, and I have to fight that. And for other guys it became very non-intellectual and I think they have to fight that. The listener is caught in the middle – I'm very concerned about the listener.

Not too many musicians are willing to admit that.

Some players say or think they don't care about it – and, hey, if they don't, great. But the painter who has to put his painting away is not a happy man. It's not about ego, either; I think the music that doesn't get heard does not exist.

What inspires you most, in terms of creating music?

I'm very interested in complexity studies, discovering that very complex things are built up of very simple things. In chemistry, simple compounds in certain states combine and change into something else, and for me that's like what we are able to do in the music. That's something I'm very interested in. There was a time when almost nothing was assembled and everything seemed conjured, and there's a lot of music that came out of that sensibility. Then the age of reason came along – logic and science come into the picture, deconstructing art to find the building blocks. Think of the smallest piece and everything gets built from that. Traditional harmony, the tempered scale, was a ramification of a particular way of looking at the world. A lot of incredible music came from that, but it's not the way the world works.
I prefer to think of it as anarchic. People say to me that my music is not anarchic, that anarchy is something you can't possibly understand, it's very aggressive and whatever, but that's not how I use the term. I mean that there is no hierarchy – none, zero. To me that's an interesting starting point, but it doesn't mean that anything goes. For me, that means that all the choices are available all the time, and now we have to make them. This is how I generally start my Gravity workshops. There's one thing I do to get people to understand my approach. I get them to do a free piece and say, let's make it about twelve or thirteen minutes long. I let them go and they always play for twenty-five minutes, it never fails. I ask them how long it was and they say, fifteen minutes. I say, twenty-five – and they're all shocked. The reason for it is because every one of them starts to play and somebody does something that they like and they follow it.
Somebody's always going to be doing something that you find interesting – it's natural. But I tell them I don't want to hear any of that. I say, I'll stop you if I hear it. I ask them to pick a song that they know the melody to – a folk song, a children's song, whatever. They don't tell anybody else what it is. No matter how they play it, the second note of the sequence is going to be fixed. You can wait five minutes before the second note is played – all you get to decide is how loud it is, how high or low it is, and suddenly they're faced with a completely revolving sonic landscape where they can decide what they are going to play.
That changes everything. Most people spend a lot of time thinking about what the next note is, and I get that off the plate and they can think about any other thing they want – just not notes. They're the ones who decide – nobody else. So that usually is enough to get people to go, how can that be? Why does that sound so good? Why shouldn't it? You guys are good players and you make good choices. I've only had a couple of times where I had to stop the ensemble. Once I had a pianist that I had a problem with. I asked him what he was doing. I said, this is not about you, and I don't care how well you can play that song you picked. If I can tell what song it is, you're missing the point completely. That's just data – how you use the data is what's important. Get your ego out of it. That becomes very interesting because nobody can know what anybody's piece is, nobody can know what anybody else is going to do. There's an arbitrariness that creeps in when more sonic information is applied.

How would that approach apply with a regularly working band? It seems like it would work better with people who are unfamiliar with one another.

It works most easily with new groups. I wish I knew what the long-term effect on a large ensemble was, but in small groups and in the Language of Swans trio, we get to a much more personal level. The way I try to keep that anarchic situation is to introduce material and not give them time to think about it. They have to rely on data, which sometimes drives them crazy. I brought a famous piece in to record recently and Reuben [Radding] said he didn't want to play it. I said that's fine, we're going to play it without you. We played it without bass. Todd [Capp] and I played it as a duo – that's okay, I didn't have a problem with that. I have a problem with someone who doesn't want to do anything – at some point it's not a good environment.

Tell us more about the trio.

We've been working together for a year. Music for me goes in cycles. In 2002 I was really into playing solo soprano. At the same time I was doing large ensemble things, composing and organizing. After that, I felt that I needed to get back into focusing on my own playing, but I didn't feel like going back to playing solo. It's interesting work but I'd done so much of it that I felt I didn't need to do it again. I'd worked in quartets and quintets, but I hadn't had a trio in a long time. I had a sound in my head that I wanted to get to, and Todd Capp was the drummer I wanted to work with – I'd known him for some time – and so the next step was finding a bass player. I went through a couple of very good ones but the chemistry wasn't quite right until Reuben came in. There's real clarity in his playing and that's what I like. When ideas are clear, the listener has a chance to connect. I'm very concerned with the listener's ability to connect, and sometimes they can have a hard time doing so.
The trio album's going to be released on Mode Avant as Blood & Dusk . We do two of my pieces, a piece by Bill Dixon, two Paul Motian tunes, and one by Annette Peacock. I'd been back-and-forth with her and I mentioned doing "Blood." She said that nobody had ever done it without a piano, and she was interested. I transcribed it – I didn't ask her for the music. I thought I'd done a pretty good job until I found the music to it in an old copy of Downbeat. I corrected it and gave it to Reuben and he asked me how I wanted him to play it. I said, I don't care if you use the music or not. I did it on sopranino, and I thought it came out great.
There are two Paul Motian tunes too. That trio he had with [saxophonist] Charles Brackeen and [bassist] David Izenzon, is the trio. I just love that music. That was the model for the trio I have now. I wanted it to have a certain sound, and I wanted it to be in three places – equal at all times unless somebody chooses to be different. My idea was that nobody listened to anybody else. I didn't want them to listen to each other.. or I wanted them to at least start out playing that way. That's how it was done for the better part of a year. With most improvisers, the idea is to "hook up", and I don't think that's how the music that really inspired me was made. There's a certain independence that has to exist, and from that comes a complexity that makes for the most interesting music. Complexity has to be part of it – it doesn't have to be difficult, but it needs to have omnivalence. At any moment, it needs to be a number of things. Otherwise, why would you need to go back and listen to it again, if you could hear it all at once? Music is more like painting. You can keep going back and see something different each time. That's the way I hear it, and that's what I think about in terms of the listeners. I want them to have that omnivalent experience. The next time, they'll hear it differently even if it's the same recording.

You've often mentioned painting as being very important, especially artists like Jackson Pollock. When I think of painting – abstract painting – I think of it as flat, yet things pop out. You get an illusion of three dimensions..

Yes, Pollock is a good example. Mark Rothko is too. You stand in front of a Rothko, and it starts to change when you look at it. What seemed to be one thing becomes another because there are subtle shapes, and there's so much paint and so many layers. It exposes itself to you slowly.

And yet you condition yourself to certain optical responses within paintings, you come to the painting with a certain type of response that you're expecting to get, a certain type of effect that your mind and body are aware of and primed for..

The situation I want to create in the listener is one where they are not conditioned. I think a lot of the music that I was getting frustrated by did not seem serious – I heard it and came away underwhelmed. It may have been well-formed, but it played to those expectations and made it easy for the listener to say, oh yeah I'm comfortable here, or, I'm uncomfortable there. I think that's doing a disservice to the listener – when expectations are clear and met, you have a success at a certain level, but at a great cost to the music. What we have to do is present people with an opportunity to be involved, give them a place to enter, whether it's rhythm or it's melody, whatever it is. Bring a certain mystery to it – not too much because people will abandon you, but a certain amount. Lacy's a great example – I don't think anybody knew what the hell he was doing, no matter whether they recognized the music or not. He never made people comfortable, but he always made them listen.

I think the word "respect" seems to have a greater amount of traction than "like" or "dislike"; there are artists I have a lot of respect for whose work I still haven't decided whether I like or not, like Anthony Braxton. That respect is what keeps me coming back.

Yes, Anthony Braxton is extremely important to me. I don’t know whether I like everything he does – some of his music I love, some not, but every bit of it is important to me.

You have a history with Braxton. Where did you meet him?

Right here in Woodstock. In mid 1978 I'd just moved back from Amsterdam and I had no work, and some friends of mine said, Anthony's doing this four orchestra piece and he needs people in pre-production. So I worked for him for about four months. I spent a lot of time around him, and working on the piece was amazing.

How did you meet Bill Dixon?

He sent me an email in October 2005 and asked me if I wanted to go to Paris and play tenor in his group. That was unbelievable. A lot of people have issues with his supposed point of view, but I found him to be very clear. I learned a lot from him. He lives in the world the way he chooses to, despite the fact that there are people who have a hard time with anybody who chooses such a lifestyle.

You also have a duo with Harvey Sorgen, which I notice you describe as "fire music."

It's definitely something that pushes harder – that's how our dialogue works. It can get extremely raw. At least that's how I hear it. Harvey and I go back over thirty years. We've done a lot of things together, and this duo is serious stuff.

You're playing soprano less in these groups, right?

Yeah, I'm playing tenor again after a long hiatus. I'd kept the horn in the house for when I wanted to hear something different, even though I wasn't recording with it. I do the same with the baritone, which I play very rarely. I hadn't really played tenor in about 25 years, and I now had a chance to think about how I wanted to play it. You don't get that chance very often, really think about what you want to do with an instrument. It took a while to get it clear, and it's really helped out my soprano playing as well. It's funny how that works. Like I said before, my soprano changes the ensemble a lot as soon as I play it. I really have to be careful with what I play and how it affects the ensemble. The tenor doesn't, so much. It allows me to work more directly with different ensemble contexts, without worrying about changing their sound. The vocabulary is also very different from the soprano, and it allows me to think about what that language is.

In your compositions, do you write with a specific instrument in mind?

My compositions don't really take into account how people play too much, or even how I play, because they're improvised from my charts. It's really democratic music, and I never tell anybody what to play, when to play, or when not to play. I worked on a few things with Butch Morris, sound-painting stuff, which was very interesting music, but not the kind that I wanted to make. There was no freedom and I didn't understand that. To play improvised music you have to bring something to the table, not just an ability to blow into a horn and take directions. If you know what you want to do, write it down; if you're interested in what an ensemble can do, let them play. I really depend on the musicians to make the decisions. It really comes down to the sound – the soprano thing is obviously thinner, and I have a history of playing it in a certain, top-directed way. Now I'm trying to explore my instruments and sound in a way that I haven't done since the 70s. When I picked up the tenor again, I was dissatisfied with the music I was hearing and the path the music had taken, so I decided to walk backwards and try to remember what had inspired me to play in the first place.

You say you haven't always been satisfied with the recordings you've made.

Usually I don't like the recordings I make. I listen to some of the music now, and I think, well, that's the way it was then and it has its valid ideas. To me, it's always about evolution – I recorded the trio and I'm already past the music. Actually, with Blood & Dusk it was interesting because we didn't make the recording I thought we were going to make when I put the trio together. The sound was the same but the material changed – and I ended up loving it. That may be a bad sign! (laughs)

Your first recording was with a fairly large ensemble – the Gravity record on Breeze. Usually when players first make their mark, it's in a small group setting. It seems like you must have been thinking orchestrally from the get-go.

That was just an accident. I ran into Paul Bley and I showed him my scores, and he wanted to hear them. That's how that recording came about. I had no idea when I would ever play that music. I had no plan, I'm not a bebop player and I really didn't know anybody who wasn't one, and I didn't know anything about open music when I made that record. There wasn't even a word for that kind of music. I was living in the country and I was in a situation where nothing was happening, so I went to Europe and worked there; but I couldn't stay and I'm actually very happy with how things turned out. I would hate to be stuck playing the way I played back then. But I still don't get work, so… (laughs)

You seem to have developed much of your music in relative isolation. Could you explain why?

My wife and I had a son in 1981. I went on the road and came back and said, I don't want this life for my son. I decided that I would work and be around my family, play but not tour. What happened was that I slid into a period of not gigging; I didn't decide not to, it just happened. I never thought I'd gig again, actually, and I wasn't working as a musician at all – just playing at home. I had no reason to consider that it would change. There were about ten years of that, where I was playing soprano exclusively at home. That's how I got to where I was with that instrument. I spent a lot of time on my Gravity music, but I had no idea whether it would ever be played. I had the opportunity to do that once I met Joe McPhee and Pauline Oliveros, who gave me a residency. Things blossomed from there.

Was your work with McPhee related in any way to the Gravity material?

There are a couple of things that are related, but they didn't know that because I didn't tell them! The quartet with McPhee [featuring Mike Bisio, bass and Tani Tabbal, drums] was different. Through Joe, I had the opportunity to do some small group stuff. I thought it was a good combination, but it was mostly free music with those people. I didn't compose for them.

Do you know what you've gotten into stylistically, as far as going past this material?

Yeah, in a vague way. I can't really fix things – I'm not good at that. If I'm good at anything, it's going down a path and working hard at that. The music has gotten a bit more personal for me, and the tenor has had a lot to do with that. The sound on the soprano is more set and defined, but with the tenor I can ask myself what sound I want, I can decide. I've gone through a bunch of horns, a bunch of mouthpieces, and finally I'm happy with the horn itself. I listen to a lot of tenor players. The list is very long, and they all sound good, but certain ones speak to me. I'm listening to the tenor players, not the songs they're playing, but the sound. I'm listening to Ayler again, and Gene Ammons..

It's funny how Ayler comes out of that Gene Ammons school. His "Stella by Starlight" [on Funky, Prestige, 1957] sounds straight out of Spiritual Unity, with that pathos-laden wide vibrato, huge stuff.

Yes, there are players that you recognize immediately, not from their sound, but from their vocabulary and logic, like Phil Woods. Then there are players you recognize by sound alone. Odean Pope is one of those players, even though he's very oblique (and I like that). I like that he plays the bottom of his horn, and I've been playing up high for so long that I find it attractive. Working on the bottom end is something I'm doing, and Odean Pope has a great sound on that end of the horn. Ammons, Ayler, they all have a great sound at the bottom. People often think of Ayler only at the top of his range.
I wonder who is going to be the next force in this music. I went through a long period of not listening [to other players], but now when people tell me about someone I go and hear them. That's how I came to Odean Pope – someone recommended his music to me. This is a music that has always gone down paths and gotten stuck, and there are a slew of great players who keep playing the same music. They're often committed to this rhythmic complexity that is claustrophobic, closed – Elvin and Milford could be complex but also omni-rhythmic, keeping the music open. But then again, some of these players are young and who knows where it will go. I'm waiting for the next thing, and hopefully it opens up. I'm always listening for the voices, and I want to hear the voices. Who plays the trumpet with that sound? There are great players making new music. I look at all of these musicians as providing an open door and I've been very lucky. It's personal growth. What else can I say?

photo Fionn Reilly

See interviews of related interest with Gene Coleman, James Finn, Ned Rothenberg, Jim McAuley, Joëlle Léandre, Burton Greene, Alan Silva and Sunny Murray. Go to: