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Johnny Griffin: Live At Ronnie Scott's

Dan Bilawsky By

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Live At Ronnie Scott's is likely to draw in a lot of jazz listeners for two reasons. First, this album was the final recording that the late Johnny Griffin—known as a saxophone speed demon—made as a leader. While other unreleased material might make its way to the market at a later date, this is Grffin's last "authorized and artist-approved" release.

The second draw has to do with his inter-generational band, featuring multiple marquee names like drummer Billy Cobham and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. While Cobham is often associated with fusion drumming, and Hargrove has played the roles of staunch traditionalist, jazz/hip-hop fuser, and everything in between, they both meet Griffin on his own turf.

Beginning with a fast take on "Lester Leaps In," Griffin has the opportunity to pay tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. Hargrove's solo contains plenty of fireworks while the swinging Cobham drives the band. Griffin follows and pianist James Pearson—who only appeared on the first of this two night stint—delivers a killer solo on his only album appearance. Griffin utters some low-to-high call-and-response phrases to break things up, and Cobham gets a chance to solo before the horns return.

Hargrove has an airy presence and Griffin's playing takes on a similar, smoky allure as they cross paths at the top of "When We Were One." When Griffin solos, he adds a bit more thrust into his playing, but Hargrove remains reflective. Despite the well-constructed nature of the horn solos, pianist David Newton solos with the greatest clarity and impact. Hargrove's "Mentor"— the other horn-led ballad performance on the album—is a tender piece that features some gorgeous playing from the composer, including a breathtaking cadenza at the end. While Griffin is not featured, it's odder still that neither horn player performs on pianist Paul Kuhn's guest spot. While the liner notes mention a second Kuhn performance that didn't come together for the recording, this track's inclusion seems a bit unnecessary. Kuhn's piano playing is stellar but it outshines his vocals, which come off as emotionally flat.

When Griffin does play, he shows a penchant for throwing quotes into his solos, and this seems to rub off on the rest of the band. Everything from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and Christmas carols to "Hit The Road Jack" seems to briefly surface throughout the album, and plenty of other choice quotes almost fly by without notice.

Despite a mild tempo, Cobham and bassist Reggie Johnson provide some swinging swagger on "The JAMFS Are Coming," while the drummer kicks off the album closer, Griffin's fiery "Hot Sake," and some terrific soloing from the saxophonist ensues. Once again, Hargrove is explosive, and Newton has the unenviable task of following this powder keg of a performance. After Johnson takes his turn, Cobham lets his chops off the leash before things come to a close. While Johnny Griffin is sorely missed, his music, thankfully, lives on.

Track Listing: Lester Leaps In; When We Were One; The Blues Walk; Mentor; How Deep Is The Ocean; The JAMFS Are Coming; Hot Sake.

Personnel: Johnny Griffin: tenor saxophone; Roy Hargrove: trumpet, flugelhorn; James Pearson: piano (1); David Newton: piano (2-4, 6, 7); Billy Cobham: drums; Reggie Johnson: bass; Paul Kuhn: piano, vocals (5).

Title: Live At Ronnie Scott's | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: In + Out Records


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