OHNNY GRIFFIN Sextet
with DONALD BYRD, PEPPER ADAMS, KENNY DREW, WILBUR WARE, PHILLY JOE JONES
Byrd (tp) Griffin (ts) Adams (brs) Drew (p) Ware (b) Jones (drs) (Woody’n You by Griffin and rhythm section only) New York; February 25, 1958
1. Stix' Trix (7:39) (Wibur Campbell)
2. What's New? (7:48) (Burke – Haggart)
3. Woody'n You (6:08) (Dizzy Gillespie)
1. Johnny G.G. (9:41) (John Hines)
2. Catharsis (9:55) (Johnny Griffin)
This album marks the addition of JOHNNY GRIFFIN to the Riverside roster of jazz artists, and it is an addition of which we are particularly proud. For Griffin is in our opinion one of the most exciting performers on the current jazz scene, and clearly among the top handful of today’s creatively “blowing” tenor men.
This first Griffin Riverside LP has a long background, actually beginning back in 1956, when Thelonious Monk (whose musical praise, never handed out lightly, carries much weight with us) returned from a Chicago engagement talking about the local tenor man he had worked with. But before we could get around to acting on that recommendation, another label had moved first and signed Griffin to a recording contract. As it happened, a first chance to hear Johnny didn’t come until nearly a year later, in March of 1957, when Art Blakey sent for him to join the Jazz Messengers at New York’s Café Bohemia.
That first night it seemed as if most of the sax players in town were in the house: some of them knew Griffin from trips to Chicago; others were drawn by curiosity about his advance reputation. What we all saw was a slight, bespectacled, mild-looking man; what we heard was a wonderfully bug, fluent tenor sound and, most notably, a truly astonishing ability to play flowing, complex and (above all) thoroughly coherent solos even at those murderously swift tempos Blakey can reach.
It had preciously been arrange, at trumpeter Clark Terry’s urgent request, to borrow Johnny for a sideman spot on Clark’s first Riverside album (RLP 12-237) ; at the recording session, about a week later, the strong first impressions of the vigor and talent of Johnny Griffin were fully confirmed. Eventually, it became possible to bring the tenor man back into that same studio, with a top-level supporting cast, for the present sextet LP, the first of several by Griffin for this label.
Griffin’s two most noticeable qualities are his dexterity and his roots. “Roots” simply means that his is not one of those modernists who think that a reference to an old-time jazzman probably means Charlie Parker, Johnny has a deep awareness of who and what preceded him. He has been described as “influenced” by Sonny Rollins, but any similarities that may exist between these two talented contemporaries seem more a matter of a shared regard for the deep-toned tenor tradition of men like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Don Byas. Griffin includes these three on the roster of those who have affected his playing, along with Lester Young. Dexter Gordon and (inevitably) Bird. He notes also the impact of specific trumpeter players (Dizzy, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown) and pianist (Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum). Perhaps even more importantly, there is in Griffin’s warm, early music the rich influence of the blues and of the gospel-linked jazz often called “church blues.”
As for “dexterity,” his previously-noted ability to get around easily at what many would consider killingly fast tempos, this is clearly a natural way of playing for Grififn - not a way of showboating. But he is in some danger of having too much attention focussed on his work at full speed. Johnny does enjoy playing up, and he does do it better and far more meaningfully than most. But he is no one-tempo man. Actually Griffin, like just about everyone else, takes his tempos where they feel right. On this LP this leads him from up to medium-swinging and on down to the languid ballad feeling of What's New. The point is that tempo is irrelevant to the fact that Griffin, at any pace, plays with skill, depth, emotion – with (to resort to an overworked but apt term) much “soul.”
This was, by design, a stretching-out kind of session, making effective use of the rich trumpet-tenor-baritone ensemble sound, but with primary emphasis on plenty of solo room. To achieve a relaxed, blowing atmosphere (but not its too-frequent alternative: a haphazard, too-much-like-a-jam-session looseness) involved a balance between freshness and familiarity. This is not just the same old gang playing the same old changes; actually, only Ware, a close associate of Chicago days, had played extensively with Griffin before. (For a brilliant example of their musical rapport, note the duet passages in Woody’n You.) But these six are all musicians of top caliber; and sufficient experience together – the listing below traces some of their joint appearances on Riverside LPs – and similarity of approach heps make them into a more than usually cohesive unit.
PEPPER ADAMS, a recent Down Beat Critics Poll “New Star” choice, is a comparative newcomer to the New York scene; he first drew attention with Stan Kenton, but his agile, swinging command of the baritone sax seems better served by his preference for warmer company. He is thoroughly at home with his fellow Detroiter, DONALD BYRD, one of the most highly regarded young trumpet man, who at the time of recording was working in Pepper’s quintet a New York’s Five Spot Café. The rhythm section has worked as a unit on Riverside several times before; KENNY DREW, among the best of the younger pianists, has sparked a long list of top names in clubs and on records; WIBUR WARE’s strong, distinctive bass style is rapidly gaining the admiration of musicians, critics and public; PHILLY JOE JONES, best known for his work with Miles Davis, is widely regarded as the most formidable drummer to come along in many a year. There are also new tunes by Chicago musicians to spice up the proceedings: drummer Wilbur Campbell’s Stix’ Trix; pianist John Hines’ Johnny G.G.; and Griffin’s driving Catharsis (dictionary definition of the word: “ a purging or relieving of the emotions by art”).
As for Griffin himself: born (April, 1928) and brought up in Chicago; learned clarinet, oboe and saxophone in high school; and launched his professional career by joining Lionel Hampton’s band just three days after graduation (June, 1945). Originally an altoist; switched to tenor for the job with Hamp, with whom he stayed for most of two years. Then formed a sextet, with Joe Morris, that lasted until early 1950. Gigs with ex-Basie drummer Jo Jones, Arnett Cobb, and eighteen months with the 264th Army Band in Hawaii. Out of service late in ’53, then worked a variety of Chicago spots until joining Blakey in 1957. Toured the country with the Jazz Messengers; then back to Chicago in the Fall of ’57 to organize his own group for a highly successful stand at Swingland (on the site of the old Cotton Club).
Griffin can also be heard on Riverside on –
Serenade to a Bus Seat: CLARK TERRY Quintet; with Johnny Griffin, Philly Joe Jones (RLP 12-237)
The Chicago Sound: WILBUR WARE Quintet featuring Johnny Griffin (RLP 12-252)
Other members of this Sextet can be heard together on such albums as –
10 to 4 at the 5-Spot: PEPPER ADAMS Quintet; with Donald Byrd (RLP 12-265)
This Is New: KENNY DREW, with Byrd, Ware (RLP 12-236)
“Pal Joey”: KENNY DREW Trio, with Ware Jones (RLP 12-249)
Man Bites Harmonica!: JEAN THIELEMANS, with Adams, Drew, Ware (RLP 12-257)
Seven Standards and a Blues: ERNIE HENRY Quartet; with Ware, Jones (RLP 12-248)
Produced, and notes written by, ORRIN KEEPNEWS.
Cover photograph: LAWRENCE PHOTO; cover designed by PAUL BACON.
Engineer: JACK HIGGINS (Reeves Sound Studios)
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCITONS, Inc.
553 West 51st Street New York 19, N.Y.