"I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode."
Well, there used to be a time when it meant something to be called a "tough tenor." It wasn't just a title your record label bestowed upon you. You had to serve your time on the frontlines of jazz, locking horns nightly with cats called Illinois, Sonny, Jug, Dexter, Wardell, Lockjaw. And when you finally earned the rank, the other tough tenors-not record producers or agents or publicists or critics-let you know.
Johnny Griffin won his "tough tenor" stripes in crack regiments like the Lionel Hampton big band, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and the Thelonious Monk quartet. In the early 1960s he co-led a quintet alongside that underrated monster of the tenor saxophone, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Then, in 1963, he emigrated to Europe and immediately became a fixture on the continent's thriving jazz scene. Griffin did not return to the States until 1978, when he was coaxed back for a guest appearance at fellow emigre Dexter Gordon's Carnegie Hall triumph.
Now, every April, the 65-year old Chicago Southsider makes an annual trip to the US, a highlight of which is a week-long birthday gig (April 24) at Chicago's Jazz Showcase, either preceded or followed by a week in New York. When he's not on tour, Griff enjoys his idyllic life in the French countryside, two hundred fifty miles outside of Paris. "It takes me almost an hour to drive to the nearest train station," he laughs.
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The Rudy Van Gelder-helmed reissue of 1957's THE CONGREGATION improves on what is already a classic Johnny Griffin date. Backed by Paul Chambers on bass, Kenny Dennis on drums, and Sonny Clark on piano, Griffin demonstrates his usual dazzling dexterity on the tenor sax. The mode is straightforward bop, with a balance of uptempo numbers and ballads, and plenty of stretching out all around. This set comes highly recommended--especially given the improved sound of the reissue--to fans of the style.
All About Jazz:
On this 1957 session, the “world’s fastest tenor” sets aside his gun-slinging ways in favor of comparatively restrained, straightforward preaching, consisting of some basic, rather predictable harmonic-rhythmic rhetoric and, of course, that distinctive sound. Griffin’s ample and slow Leslie- like vibrato is somewhat reminiscent of Dexter Gordon’s but without the long tall one’s frequently sardonic send-up of swing-era clichés, replacing them with tension-filled, dramatic alternatives derived from a chord's extended harmonies. In brief, the program on The Congregation is curiously unengaging: it would almost seem the “Little Giant” dispatched more souls with his six-shooters than his sermonizing.
A sense of over-familiarity sets in immediately with the introductory title song, a thinly disguised variation on Horace Silver's “The Preacher.” The remaining five tunes, including the ballad “I’m Glad There Is You,” all gravitate toward the same groove—a medium-up tempo in the key of concert F (a recurrent top tone in the tenor solos as well). And as solid, even sparkling, as they are, Paul Chambers’ bass solos on each of the tunes—at least three of them bowed—tend to underscore the repetitive, formulaic nature of the proceedings.
The virtuosity and rapid-fire articulations of the gifted tenor man begin to emerge on John Jenkins’ “Latin Quarter” (somewhat of a misnomer) with a couple of heated, double-timed choruses and an arresting cadenza, but the momentary spark is extinguished until Jule Styne’s always welcome “It’s You Or No One” which, though again in F, is at least taken at a slightly brighter tempo. Pianist Sonny Clark and Chambers are a flawless team as usual, and the somewhat unusual employment of drummer Kenny Dennis does nothing to obstruct their customary flow. The bonus track, “I Remember You” (in F, naturally), is another nice standard but does little for the program. Its inclusion, in fact, begs comparison with Cannonball Adderley’s superb Cannonball Takes Charge (Riverside, 1959), a session that employs the same instrumentation and a similar program yet maintains a hard, gemlike flame throughout.
Track List of Johnny Griffin - Congregation:
1. The Congregation
2. Latin Quarter
3. I'm Glad There Is You
4. Main Spring
5. It's You Or No One
6. I Remember You (Bonus Track)
Johnny Griffin - Congregation
ALUN MORGAN, from the liner notes,The Man I Love, Black Lion.
Johnny Griffin / Art Taylor 4tet - My Little Swede Shoes - Youtube