Griffin’s playing has always exuded panache, self-assurance, bordering on arrogance and supreme technical skill.
GEARBOX RSGB 1010CD
Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone); Stan Tracey (piano); Malcolm Cecil (double bass); Jackie Dougan drums
Recorded 8th January 1964
If there was a bucket list for time travellers, January 1964 in Gerrard St would be a destination. The palpable excitement at the end of the musicians’ union ban after years of deprivation would be moments to share. Visits from musicians whose work had only been available on discs were revelatory. Eventually such events became almost routine, but at the date of this recording everything was still fresh. You would ignore the dilapidated state of the room to be swept up into a jazz fervour.
The album was recorded at the old Ronnie Scott’s, 39 Gerrard Street, Soho. Johnny Griffin was one of the roster of major saxophone players invited by Ronnie to play at the club when the musicians’ union ban was lifted. Zoot Sims was the first in. Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins all appeared. Johnny Griffin came over from France to dazzle, delight and deliver a masterclass of saxophone playing, accompanied by Scott’s house band. It was a great time. Each saxophonist had a unique style, a distinctive tone. It was a cavalcade of jazz greatness.
!964 was the year when John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were riding high with the tastemakers and players like Johnny Griffin were concerned about their relevance. Griffin’s playing has always exuded panache, self-assurance, bordering on arrogance and supreme technical skill. His tone was unique and his insouciant delivery was full-bodied with surprising subtle overtones. A unique distinctive tone that is as recognisable as Tom Waits’ voice was at times capable of exquisite tonal variations when he is not being exuberant or ebullient. Occasionally, in the spraying of notes he soars and reminds us why listening to jazz can be joyful and exciting.
He came to Scott’s after work with Monk, his duos with Lockjaw Davis, work with Blakey and the residencies of clubs in New York and Chicago. In many ways, Griffin was underrated largely because his ability to play at speed became his defining characteristic masking his ability to play ballads with extra nuances that were the equal of any of his contemporaries.
Warp speed ‘Back Home Again In Indiana’ is played at 80 bars a minute with a solo lasting for over ten minutes without losing coherence or the rhythm section. This is the Johnny Griffin we have come to expect. The variations of tone are impressive as is the speed, the lucidity, the invention and indefatigability. Stan Tracey is energised, mischievous and Malcolm Cecil provides a consistent bass framework.
Jackie Dougan is well recorded and, in many ways, he is as important to this album as Griffin. His drive, accompaniment, percussive comments, pulsations and drumming fluency is very satisfying. He is never overawed by Griffin, making this some of his best work on record.
Unfortunately, Stan Tracey is not well recorded and occasionally you have to strain to hear him. It is a pity because Tracey is a majestic pianist whose every solo is important. On occasions, Tracey’s idiosyncratic accompaniments have unnerved soloists but Griffin who could deal with playing with Monk breezes through. Les Tomkins recorded this group on his Ferrograph on a number of occasions during Griffin’s stay at the club, some of the recordings with better sound from Tracey. Perhaps some of that material could be issued soon.
‘The Girl Next Door’, is an unusual choice of an intransigent tune. For a man used to weaving his way through Monk themes he finds the path through with ease. ‘Blue In Twos’ is a disarmingly simple theme that yields profound music. It is an object lesson in making something out of nothing. Malcolm Cecil has an intuition that enables him to provide what is needed. Chorus after chorus spills out from Griffin. The Tracey solo is irritating because you can just about hear what obviously great music is. Sometimes, he sounds as though he is an adjacent room. Eventually, Stan Tracey almost triumphs and you can hear the culmination of his solo.
The erudite notes are by Richard Williams. Pity about Val Wilmer’s cover image which almost certainly looks good on the vinyl sleeve, but it loses definition on the front of the CD.