A highly regarded recording in the impressive discography of Johnny Griffin, this recently remastered RVG edition of The Congregation is more likely to appeal to the faithful than win many new converts. 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 groovea 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 tunesat least three of them bowedtend 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.
Given Griffin's prolific output, there's no need to make membership among his flock of admirers contingent upon embracing The Congregation. Try the date with Ira Sullivan, Blue Stroll (Delmark, 1959), or with Eddie Davis, Live at Minton's (Prestige, 1961), or with Monk, Thelonious in Action (Riverside, 1958), or the burnin' and bristlin' Return of the Griffin (OJC, 1978). Unfortunately, A Blowin' Session (Blue Note, 1957), with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, continues to be plagued by audio distortion that all but homogenizes three of American music's most distinctive tenor voices. At least there's no mistaking who's doing the preaching on The Congregation.
Personnel: Johnny Griffin: tenor sax; Sonny Clark: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Kenny Dennis: drums.