Up until around the time this recording was made, jazz had been beat crazy. Fast or slow, the implicit goal was swing, above all. By removing drums from the equation, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, and Steve Swallow generated their own rhythms, tested the musical expressiveness of their instruments, and explored variations in tempo and tone by profoundly listening to each other.
“Sonic” is performed on each of the two concerts recorded for German radio (in Stuttgart and Bremen) and presented in this two-disc set. On the first date, Bley’s piano and Giuffre’s clarinet trill while Swallow swipes his bow across the strings of his bass. The effect is nuanced and subtle, so subtle that the audience breaks into applause halfway through. It’s easy to sympathize with their eagerness. No doubt they were listening as intently as the musicians. Two weeks later Swallow’s playing is strictly pizzicato and the trio slips into a slightly different groove.
Bley opens the first concert with “Whirrrr” and already he’s leaning into the piano’s belly to pluck its strings. On “Emphasis,” his piano sounds like a harpsichord and takes the place of the absent drums by establishing a rhythm as Swallow creeps and lurks in his shadow. Swallow moves to the forefront in Bremen for “Cry, Want,” where he flirts with bluesy phrasing, and the bass-driven “That’s True, That’s True,” which elicits a little clapping from someone on the bandstand. Conversely, “Jesus Maria” begins as sadly and beautifully as a piece by Eric Satie, transforms into a bolero, then circles back again. “Flight” is the most exciting number, featuring Giuffre’s clarinet cries and Bley’s two-fisted bombs.
Most often, however, this music is extremely quiet, and internal duos and trios fade in and away as naturally as the melodic ideas. “Most of our music is improvised,” says Jimmy Giuffre during one of his introductions, and exactly what is notated and what comes from the moment is indistinguishable. Around the same time, Cecil Taylor removed the bassist from his group and as a result elongated the beat beyond limits. With this trio, the beat isn’t really an issue. Forty years forward, the influence of this trio continues to be astounding.