Sunday, July 27, 2008

Johnny Griffin

The attrition of jazz greats continued Friday with the passing of Johnny Griffin. The oft-proclaimed "fastest saxophonist in the world" also had one of the world's greatest careers. From his first sessions on Blue Note, a stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, to a lengthy residence at Riverside, recording sessions with all the greats, and eventual ex-patriat status in France, Griffin continued to play his effervescent brand of hard bop right up to the end. The death of Johnny Griffin is also a sobering reminder of the precarious position of jazz in America as the numbers of great players dwindles even further and its presence on major record labels is all but non-existent.

My favorite session of Griffin's has always been the Johnny Griffin Sextet for Riverside with the Donald Byrd--Pepper Adams Quintet. Not only are the songs great, but the solos are excellent and the sound quality is better than usual for a Riverside LP. While all of the independent labels used Rudy Van Gelder's studio back then, the Riverside sessions often used other studios and therefore never had the big, open sound of the Blue Note or Prestige from the same time. The opening track, "Stix Trix" is the highlight for me. Written by drummer Wilbur Campbell, the tune first appeared on the LP Nicky's Tune by Ira Sullivan recorded in Chicago--Griffin's home town--by the title "Wilbur's Tune." That was something Griffin also liked to do, use tunes by fellow Chicagoans on his albums, like "Latin Quarters" by John Jenkins which Griffin used on his Blue Note session The Congregation in 1957 and then again with the composer on the Wilbur Ware session The Chicago Sound.

Griffin's sextet session comes just a few months after his association with Blue Note ended. Other tunes include a Griffin original entitled "Catharsis," the Burke-Haggart standard "What's New," and an interesting quartet take of Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody'n You." What's interesting about the arrangement is how Griffin--as the only horn--plays the counterpoint to the melody instead of the melody itself. The genesis of this would seem to be the Coleman Hawkins' version from 1944. With Hawkins front and center at the mike, Gillespie's melody statement can barely be heard in the background. It is undoubtedly this "mistake" that Griffin emulated on tune, and to pleasing effect.

The other session I would like to mention is a live concert from France that was recorded in 1989 on the LP Birdology. With fellow bebopers Jackie McLean, Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan and Roy Haynes, it is a masterful tribute not only to Charlie Parker, but to the musical prowess of all involved. The "Little Giant" was truly one of the tenor giants of his day. Along with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley he defined the hard bop tenor sound of the 1960s, specifically the Chicago style heard in other tenors like Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, and his edgy, frenetic playing on countless recording sessions over the past five decades will be treasured as long as the music survives..

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