Johnny Griffin: Setting the Pace

Derek Taylor By

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Most follwers of Griffin’s robust tenor sound don’t regard the man who was widely regarded at various times as the ‘Little Giant,” “The Cat” and “the fastest tenor on the scene” as a boundary stretching modernist. He did serve a memorable stint in Monk’s quartet, delivering an angular urgency that complimented the pianist’s idiosyncratic style, but few would include him among the numbers of saxophonists who have flirted with the experimental fringes of jazz.

This Riverside reissue presents a persuasive case for reevaluation of Griffin’s relegation to the confines of the mainstream. First off there’s the eye-opening instrumentation. The rounded chamber music platitudes of Watkin’s horn combined with the manifold steel-fingered bass solidity of Lee (Spike’s father) and Gales, and the lightning-quick traps work of Riley all come together in an irresistibly mellifluous melange. Next there’s the truly incendiary playing that five men goad each other into. Griffin’s fastest gun mantle comes into glorious focus on the group’s velocious reading of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night.” Lee and Gales build an unbelievably fast pizzicato forest of plucked strings that meshes with Riley’s cymbals before Griffin pops the cork and pours forth a blurring spray of melodic phrases. The only disappointment is the tune’s all too fast fade. Riley on mallets and sawing tandem bass bows set the stage on Griffin’s austere “Last of the Fat Pants” where the saxophonist delivers a persuasive sermon with artistry and assurance.

The whole disc is rife with a muscular vigor that manifests itself in the savory strength of each player’s improvisations. Griffin preaches from the guts and his oratory fire is tempered admirably by the cool balm of Watkin’s rotund brass. As a front line the two horn players are a tough deuce to beat. Based on the concrete rhythmic underpinning the two bassists carve together Griffin’s decision to pair the two is indicative of a stroke of genius. Listening to them scrape and snap away at their strings makes one wish they had found further opportunities to record together. Lee in particular is a revelation, both in regards to his formidable technique and in the two compositions he contributes to the program of tunes. “Nocturne” and “As We Know” are each brimming with thoughtful harmonic twists and take excellent advantage of the quintet’s unique instrumental palette with special attention to interplay between the basses. Riley keeps flawless time whether building a booming march-like cadence as on “Same to You” or crafting loose cymbal accents as on the Watkins penned “Situation.” This release is easily one of the most satisfying reissues by Riverside in some time and that’s really saying something when you consider the incredible catalog this label has at it’s disposal. Fans of Griffin who haven’t been previously privy to this exciting session are guaranteed to find what their looking for over the course of these nine boundary breaching tracks.

Track Listing: Soft and Furry/ In the Still of the Night/ The Last of the Fat Pants/ Same To You/ Connie

Personnel: Johnny Griffin- tenor saxophone; Julius Watkins- french horn; Bill Lee- double bass; Larry Gales- double bass; Ben Riley- drums.

Title: Setting the Pace | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Fantasy Jazz


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