White Gardenia: JOHNNY GRIFFIN with Strings and Brass
A Tribute to Billie Holiday
arrangements by MELBA LISTON (*) and NORMAN SIMMONS
Johnny Griffin (ts) is accompanied by –
(on Bloomy Sunday, No More, Don’t Explain)
Clark Terry (flh) Ray Alonge (frh) Jimmy Cleveland (tb) Urbie Green (tb) Paul Faulice (tb) Barry Galbraith (g) Ron Carter (b) Ben Riley (ds) and string section (violas and cells)
New York City; July 13, 1961
(on other seven selections) Clark Terry (tp) Ernie Royal (tp) Nat Adderley (tp) sama French horn, trombones, guitar, bass and drums; Barry Harris or Jimmy Jones (p) and string section (cellos)
July 14 and 17, 1961
(Trumpet solo on Good Morning, Heatache by Adderly; on Don’t Explain by Terry. Trombone solo on Travelin’ Light by Cleveland. All piano solos by Harrs.)
1. Gloomy Sunday (*) (4:04) (Seres –Javor – Lewis)
2. That Old Devil Called Love (*) (3:47) (Roverts – Fisher)
3. White Gardenia (*) (3:18) (Johnny Griffin)
4. God Bless the Child (Herzog – Holiday)
5. Detour Ahead (4:28) (Carter – Ellis – Frigo)
1. Good Morning Heartache (4:10) (Fisher – Drake – Higginbotham)
2. Don’t Explain (*) (4:43) (Herzog – Holiday)
3. Travelin’ Light (4:06) (Askt – Clare)
4. No More (3:57) (Russell – Camarata)
5. Left Alone (*) (2:54) (Waldron – Holiday)
This album is, first of all, a warm and meaningful combination of several skillfully blended elements. Secondly, it is designed as a tribute to Billie Holiday. This sequence of sentences is not intended to play down the association with Billie (that’s where the idea for the album came from in the first place). It’s merely that I feel that even if you were able to blot out of your mind all knowledge that the tunes here are closely linked with Lady Day, you would still find these performances deeply interesting and richly emotional.
Actually, taking into consideration the obvious fact that JOHNNY GRIFFIN is an instrumentalist and not a vocalist, describing this as a “tribute” to Billie may strike some people as strange. There has been more than one album before now of the “Alice Glick Sings Billie Holiday” variety, but an appreciative undertaking of this particular type is rare. We’re all aware of the fantastic influence Billie had on other singers, but very possibly her influence on musicians has been underrated. Many of Lady’s firmest fans were musicians, and I would find it hard to believe that any jazz player who ever listened to her was not touched, in some way, by that magical quality that she alone possessed. Johnny Griffin never worked with Billie, but his deep affection for her (and the good taste with which he is capable of expressing that affection) is quite clear.
Now that it has been done, my only real complaint about this album is that it wasn’t done a long time ago. Those skillfully-blended ingredients I referred to at the start have been available: Griffin’s ballad-playing ability has been there (although never before used this extensively in a single album); the material and the inspiration of Billie have been there; and there have been at least a few arrangers roaming the scene capable of designing the settings and a growing list of musicians (both jazz and string) capable of playing them. At any rate, belated or not, the ingredients have now been shuffled together, and up comes “White Gardenia” … two long-playing sides of superbly warm Johnny Griffin tenor, nine choice selections from the Holiday songbag, some extremely sympathetic strings, some of the very best brass players in the country, and two very capable scene-roaming arrangers named Melba Liston and Norman Simmons. The result, to me (if I can use a bromide without being placed in front of a firing squad made up of ten jazz critics) is a truly beautiful album.
There is no attempt here to duplicate Billie’s approach or actual recording of a tune. Instead, it’s Johnny’s feeling for Lady and for her material, as expressed both in Griffin’s own playing and in the string of two arrangers who not only share his sentiments but also know and understand him quite well. Picking just nine tunes from all the great things Billie did was perhaps the greatest problem; it had to lead to some frustration, and could even have led to icy stares, heated words and fist-fights. The final selection (without fit-fights) was handled like this: Johnny, Melba, Norman and Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews separately listed their individual favorites, then convened to argue it out. Naturally, some choices were mutual and inevitable, saving some pressure. But then came the haggling, whittiling, pushing and pulling that built the final list. (And then, toughest of all, the decisions as to which arranger was to get those tunes that both had to have!) I’m certain that each of the four still feels that “that “ tune never should have been left out, and you may have your own disappointments, but on looking over – and hearing – the final list, I know I have no complaints. The one Griffin original, the title number, is to me a beautiful illustration of Billie Holiday tune. White Gardenia sounds like Billie Holiday.
As for the actual musical sounds on the album, I feel your hearing will far-better describe them than my words. In the minds of some listeners (often including me), jazz and strings rarely make a happy merger. But here, possibly because warm-toned cellos and violas rather than violins have been used, I think the writing for strings and the blending with the horns comes off excellently. The talented Miss Liston takes pen in hand and handsomely shatters the sword of the anti-stringers on That Old Devil Called Love and Don’t Explain (to name just two at random of her six contributions). Norman Simmons, the young Chicago pianist and arranger who wrote all the charts for Griff’s “Big Soul-Band” album, contributes the other four winners. His writing on Travelin’ Light is particularly delightful; and Good Morning Heartache, with its robust feeling, is fine example of the way the strings are used throughout as a vital swinging part of the proceedings, and not as some extra-messy icing thrown in for effect. The sidemen include some of the finest: Nat Adderley, Clark Terry (listen to his pretty, pretty chorus on Don’t Explain), Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, and so on – not overlooking those ever-sympathetic strings (hand-picked by the ever-valuable Harry Lookofsky).
The many-faceted John Griffin has often delighted me and many others in the past; with small groups and the “Big Soul-Band” on Riverside; in his excitingly toe-tap-ping collaborations with tough-tenor Lockjaw Davis on Jazzland. And now, in the unusual setting of “White Gardenia,” he gives us (according to the stop-watch) another 38 minutes and 44 seconds of musical pleasure. Actually, though, if you’re really interested in measuring musical pleasure, I’d advise you to get out your multiplication table. You’re going to play this one more than once.
Other Griffin albums include –
Change of Pace (RLP 368; Stereo 9368)
The Big Soul-Band (RLP 331; stereo 1179)
The Little Giant (RLP 304; Stereo 1149)
Produced by ORRIN KEEPNWES
Recording engineer: RAY FOWLER
Recorded and mastered at Plaza Sound Studios
Album design: KEN DEARDOFF
Back-liner photos by STEVE SCHAPIRO
This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RLP 9387) and monaural (RLP 387) form.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GARUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc,
235 West 46th Street, New York 36, New York