The appeal of a good cutting session is similar to that of a good boxing match: we all enjoy watching two competitors locked in combat, pushing themselves to new boundaries and discovering untapped resources. Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis went so far as to establish a quintet which allowed them repeated opportunities to duke it out over a series of recording sessions and club dates.
1960's Tough Tenors is their first meeting on record, and – as one might expect – it features plenty of fire-breathing dynamics and bombast. Leaving the more complex material from the time by the wayside, Griffin and Davis make good use of popular songs from the swing era, a move which allows them to burn through solos without worrying about tricky changes. Griffin, once called the world’s fastest tenor player, is certainly well-suited to set a fearsome tempo, yet Davis, no slouch, is surprisingly fleet-fingered as well.
The quintet rips through “Tickle Toe” at a scorching pace, using far more notes than Lester Young would ever have dreamed possible. They catch their breath on the bluesy swagger of “Save Your Love For Me” before re-establishing a rapid gait on “Twins” and scarcely letting up after that. Obviously the rhythm section carries the grunt work, content to stay out of the way of the gymnastics.
The two hornmen were a terrific match; Davis’s and Griffin’s horns blend together with razor-sharp precision on the heads, yet diverge dramatically during their solos, Davis identifiable by a fluttery cascade of notes, Griffin by robust, slippery passages. Both musicians have proved their worth on several other occasions, yet the endless dazzle quickly grows tiresome and one longs for something a little more substantial than listening to these two guys lock horns. The sole ballad, “Imagination,” seems almost like an afterthought and only features Davis anyway; the last track, “Soft Winds,” allows the quintet to indulge in a more relaxed groove these players should have explored to a greater extent. Sure, these guys can play, but one longs for a little more nuance and finesse, and in the end the quintet could have worked toward a better balance between showmanship and artistry.
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