The Big Soul Band: Johnny Griffin Orchestra

Big bands- love ’em, loathe ’em, or try to understand ’em. I was initially reluctant to give much time to what I viewed as a jazz form that lacked spontaneity featuring over-drilled musicians simply reading the dots from charts. Thankfully, my Ronnie Scott’s membership in the late 80’s / early 90’s enabled me to try out excellent artists that I had not previously seen or heard for little more than the price of a drink. Along the way I saw unforgettable big band performances from Lester Bowie and Sun Ra which convinced me that I should open my ears a little more.

Despite the benefits of my liberal education at Ronnie’s, I retain a marked resistance to purchasing big band recordings. However, I kept coming across copies of The Big Soul Band while browsing through second-hand bins for those elusive Blue Note first pressings. Eventually I bit the bullet and bought.

Johnny Griffin, or John Arnold Griffin III, was born and raised in Chicago. In the late 1940’s he befriended Elmo Hope, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, three great pianists from whom he received what he referred to as ‘my postgraduate education’. Not a man of great stature, his playing won him the nickname ‘the little giant’, while his pugnacious talents in after-hours cutting sessions where instrumentalists battled it out resulted in him gaining the title of ‘fastest tenor in the west’. He toured with Monk, following John Coltrane’s departure and later played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

By March 1960, a 31 year old Griffin was already an experienced session leader with seven recordings to his name. These included three Blue Note dates (which we will return to at a later date) although he moved to Riverside in 1958 since he did not get along with Rudy Van Gelder. At Riverside he was encouraged to realise an ambition which was to record an album with a really big sound derived from traditional spirituals or similarly structured tunes. Producer, Orrin Keepnews noted that whilst the sound that Griffin had in mind was ‘…becoming prevalent and popular in jazz circles (and quite notably on Riverside) as “soul music”…apparently no one else had yet thought of welding “soul” with a full big band sound.’ Riverside gave Johnny a Griffin the green light to proceed and The Big Soul Band set was the result.

The musical arrangements were crucial to the project and this was entrusted to Norman Simmons a young pianist and arranger, like Green, also from Chicago.

Without further ado here is the set’s opening number. It is a muscular, trombone filled Big Soul Band version of the classic spiritual Wade in The Water, brought here with interesting water-themed visuals, featuring Hollywood’s ‘Million-dollar mermaid’, Esther Williams, courtesy of Sergio Walrus on YouTube.

To watch, click or touch the arrow

Panic Room Blues is next up and offers a muted trumpet before giving way to the light and shade offered by Griffin’s tenor saxophone against a background of trumpets and a particularly engaging trombone solo from Matthew Gee.

On Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen Griffin’s introduction is played with feeling contrasted with a sophisticated ensemble sound.

I’m less keen on the flavour of Meditation Which sounds like film soundtrack music for a tale of mild mystery and marginal suspense. If the album was typified by this track it would have been on its way back to the vendor very quickly indeed- but, of course it might be your favourite (and please bear in mind I couldn’t write or arrange my way out of a musical yet metaphorical paper bag).

Holla opens Side 2 with a slinky sort of feel and a chance for Griffin to lead the way.

Bobby Timmons was also on the session and he contributes So Tired although the piano duties are given over to Harold Mabern on the recording. There is a version here from YouTube coutesy of MoodSwingerz.

To watch, click or touch the arrow

Deep River is the third traditional spiritual number and is played with reverence and feeling. Finally, Jubilation is a joyful Junior Mance composition which offers bassist, Vic Sproules an opportunity to be heard loud and clear.

The Big Soul Band is an enjoyable recording although, for me, the contrasts in both volume and tone between the soloists and the ensemble mean that it will never become everyday listening- a record that I have to be in the right mood for. My copy is a mono vinyl pressing: RLP 331. The cover is a bold one, with half the front given over to a press release, which describes the contents. It is a good piece of copy which bears reproduction here:-

The vibrant and large-scale sound heard here is one that achieves much of its dynamic and deeply-moving newness by reaching back into the roots and soul of jazz. It makes excitingly emotion-charged modren use of such fundamentals as spirituals, blues and gospel-imbued jazz. This is also big music; the rich burstingly full sound of brass and reed sections. For the very first time, a truly big-band sound has been dramatically merged with the soulful earthiness of the stirring new jazz of the 1960’s- music that combines down-home funk with the aggressive surge of the big city. This startling and unique album features the Johnny Griffin Orchestra in arrangements by Norman Simmons. It spotlights the amazingly full-throated tenor saxophone ‘preaching’ of Johnny Griffin, playing as never before in front of the fervent, larger-than-life sounds built by Norman Simmons, a young arranger whose brilliant future begins here.

The band etc: Norman Simmons (arranger); Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone); Harold Mabern (piano); Bobby Timmons (piano, celeste track 3); Clark Terry and Bob Bryant (trumpets); Charles Davis (baritone sax); Edwin Williams (tenor sax); Julian Priester and Matthew Gee (trombones); Pat Patrick and Frank Strozier (alto sax);Bob Cranshaw and Vic Sproules (bass); Charlie Persip (drums). Recorded: May 21 & 31 and June 3 1960. Plaza Sounds Studio, New York City. Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Sleeve Notes: Orrin Keepnews. Cover photos: Lawrence Shustak. Cover Design: Ken Deardoff. Issued as Riverside 331.