By Devon Wendell
By 1958, Johnny Griffin was known as the fastest tenor saxophonist to emerge from the hard-bop era. Griffin’s dexterity combined with his ability to make you feel every soulful note that he played made him one of the most spectacularly brilliant and original musicians in the world.
Griffin had replaced John Coltrane in Thelonious Monk’s band in 1958. Griffin proved to not only understand the harmonic complexities of Monk’s music, but he also “got” that playing with Monk meant having to be able to improvise thematically instead of just blowing over some chord changes.
Griffin applied those same thematic sensibilities to his own playing and writing as a fearless bandleader. Griffin was a unique arranger whose love of both bebop and big band jazz were prevalent throughout his illustrious yet unpredictable recording career.
The Johnny Griffin Sextet was recorded for the Riverside label on February 25th, 1958. It features Griffin paired with some of the all-time greatest musicians in jazz: Kenny Drew, piano, Donald Byrd, trumpet, Pepper Adams, baritone sax, Wilbur Ware, bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
The Album opens with “Stix Trix” which is a loving tribute to drummer Philly Joe Jones. The song’s arrangement brings to mind Dizzy Gillespie’s big band bop sound of the mid- to late 1940s. Drew’s masterful piano solo is percussive yet elegant. Pepper Adams delivers one of the hardest swinging solos of his career. Donald Byrd’s solo soars. Griffin comes in playing more economically than usual, singing confidently through his horn in perfect time. He then swings in a more syncopated fashion, gleefully playing with the song’s tempo.
Griffin and the sextet’s version of “What’s New?” is a definite highlight of his entire career and my favorite rendition of this Johnny Burke and Bob Haggart ballad. Griffin plays soft and sweetly. Lester Young’s influence can be heard in each note that rings out with a rich, slow vibrato and long, soulful bends in the horn’s upper register. Byrd’s amazingly cocky and frenetic solo is the perfect counterpoint to Griffin’s. Adams almost steals the show with his mournful and harmonically stellar baritone lines.
Philly Joe Jones’ rhythmically complex drumming on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody N’ You” makes this one of the most original arrangements of this daddy of all bebop songs. Griffin and Ware “stroll” alone as the rest of the band lays out, a style first made popular by Sonny Rollins when Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954 on the Prestige label.
Jones eventually comes back in and trades eights with Griffin, Ware, and Drew. Ware’s bass is the perfect anchor for Jones’ rhythmic explorations. The entire band is burning.
“Johnny G.G.” and “Catharsis” also have big band style arrangements to them. Everyone is grooving in time here, and there isn’t much fast pyrotechnics or over blowing which makes these number swing even harder. The rhythm section of Ware and Jones are the driving force and the rest of the band not only knows it, but relishes in this fact. These are two of the hippest sextet recordings made during this time. Byrd and Adams play a little double time but quickly fall back into the groove. Wilbur Ware (who also played in Monk’s band shortly before this recording) lets it be known that he was one of the most original and tasteful bass players to emerge from the 1950s.
The Johnny Griffin Sextet showcases Griffin’s complex yet soulful approach to soloing as well as his uniquely distinct abilities as a master arranger and composer. This album is a perfect example of how Johnny Griffin could transform his love and mastery of both bebop and big band jazz into something fresh and timeless.
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