Category Archives: Johnny Griffin

Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party

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In September 1960 Johnny Griffin led this session which sought to capture the spontaneity of a live recording in a studio environment where the sound quality could be controlled and shaped to a much greater degree than in most live venues. Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party is exactly what the title says it is. An audience was invited to the Plaza Sounds Studio in New York where they were treated to drinks and a buffet and encouraged to respond to the music as though they were in a club setting.

Writing posts for downwithit.info would be far more difficult if, like many fellow Jazz site authors, I was to confine myself to recordings that I owned in a vinyl format. Most of my posts are based on listening to FLAC sound files that I have ripped from CDs that I have purchased. I enjoy the freedom to roam that this offers and it is a freedom that I wouldn’t have if I was to only write about vinyl records. I can’t afford top quality early pressings and usually lack the time it takes to dig through crates of second hand vinyl in search of rare bargains. I’m not sure if this offends the purists but if it does then too bad.

So what has this look at Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party to do with this?

Well! It represents a rare consideration on this site of a vinyl LP. I have a regular cursory flick through the jazz section of my local music and DVD shop and once in a while I come across an affordable record that I am prepared to stump up the cash for.

Back in August 2014 I wrote about another Johnny Griffin recording:- his Big Soul Band set. By coincidence that was also a vinyl record from the same shop.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the fare that is served up here:-

After an extended introduction from Babs Gonzales, in which the invited audience are encouraged to settle in and avail themselves of the food and drinks, the session proper gets underway.

The opener is a lengthy rendition of Tad Dameron / Count Basie’s Good Bait. After a brief and moody swing-influenced head the band hit double time and Griffin is away with a lively solo before bringing in Dave Burns on trumpet. Griffin’s second solo is a little ragged as is his playing when he trades verses with Burns but overall there is little not to enjoy.

You can take a listen courtesy of ‘Umo’ at Youtube here:-

To play click or touch the arrow.

There Will Never Be Another You features Burns on the head and first solo. Simmons acquits himself well on piano. Griffin’s notes are voiced swiftly as bursts of sound, before, in conclusion Griffen and Burns again trade phrases with each other, before receiving deserved applause.

Toe-Tappin’ is a Burns composition that displays more than a nod towards Moanin’, although unlike that classic it is played at a brisk tempo. There’s space for a short bass solo from Vic Sproules which fits well.

You’ve Changed is introduced by Gonzalves in basic French as a version of the ballad associated with Billie Holiday. Burns plays beautifully on this.

Low Gravy is a strolling blues number written for the session by Gonzales, which closes the recording.

My copy is a Japanese pressing and this initially made me think twice about the purchase. Any doubts were set aside when I examined the back cover and discovered that the copy on sale had been previously owned by ‘Schmidt’ a well-known British jazz collector (London Jazz Collector owns several records from the same source). As you will see he had the habit of adding his name in his distinctive script. Although embellishments to the sleeve usually reduce its value, an exception can be made for him.

I pointed the signature out to the extremely knowledgeable shopkeeper who said that he remembered meeting Schmidt and thought that he had something to do with the audio or hifi business. I intend to have a chat with him to try to get some more information when I next see him and the shop is not busy.

Although I admire Johnny Griffin for being adventurous with the concept of this release, Studio Jazz Party is not the greatest album with a live feel to it but it is worth a listen and I am pleased to have added a first ‘Schmidt’ to my collection.

The band etc: Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone); Norman Simmons (piano); Dave Burns (trumpet); Vic Sproules (bass); Ben Riley (drums). Recorded: September 27 1960. Plaza Sounds Studio, New York City. Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Sleeve Notes: Chris Albertson. Cover photos: Lawrence Shustak. Cover Design: Ken Deardoff. Original Stereo copy issued as Riverside 9338.

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Classic Albums on downwithit.info in 2014

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Happy New Year to all visitors, new and old. Here’s my 100th post on downwithit.

I still have an unfinished task from 2014 which is to look back at all the classic sets that I reviewed here in 2014. By classic I mean anything other than a new release so there are one or two sets from the present millennium included here. A quick count indicates that I wrote about 26 of these albums in 2014, so I think I can conclude that I wasn’t idle, especially given that I also wrote about a number of contemporary sets and offered up some live reviews.

What follows may be a bit of a trudge through a list, but I have linked to all the reviews and if any catch your interest, please click and take a look.

On NYD 2014 I started with a bang by taking a look at John Coltrane’s Blue Train, one of my all-time favorites that I urged everyone to obtain and listen to if they hadn’t done so already.

This was followed up by Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and a track that inspired numerous imitations.

My January postings dipped into dinner jazz in the form of Grover Washington Jr’s All The King’s Horses and British hard bop from the 1980’s UK jazz revival via Tommy Chase and Groove Merchant.

Thoughts of Tommy Chase led downwithit.info into fresh territory and I decided to devote some time to exploring the current scene, which was something that I really enjoyed during the course of 2014. If you want a recap of the newly released albums that I reviewed last year, they can be found here and my trawl of live performances is referred to here. I’m not sure if my ramblings have encouraged the purchase of a single album or attendance at any gigs but if they have, please leave a comment and let me know.

I wrote five reviews in February 2014 opening with Horace Parlan’s piano trio set Movin’ And Groovin’. I followed this up with Johnny Griffin’s Big Soul Band. I wavered about posting on that one because I thought that it was something of a departure from the classic small band context and that it would not fit- but it seemed to be OK and remains a popular review according to my stats.

Fred Jackson’s great Hootin”N Tootin’ was next up. At the time, I checked Wikipedia which did not give a date of death. Hopefully Fred still is with us and is enjoying a peaceful retirement at the grand age of 85 years old. If anybody knows more, please tell us.

A further less well-known Blue Note set, John Jenkins With Kenny Burrell was placed in the spotlight, before I took a look at Thembi by my favourite living saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders.

March 2014 saw me take an overdue look at Yusef Lateef (more to come in 2015) and Jazz Mood, his first set as a leader from 1957. The Cats, a fine session featuring John Coltrane followed and I made my first visit to a Grant Green recording on these pages with Grant’s First Stand.

In April, I brought news a a real gem: Heavy Sounds by Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, another set to listen to even if you have to beg steal or borrow. A slow journey north up the motorway system led me to grapple with Bobby Hutcherson’s Happenings. The same trip north gave me time to take a look at The Hot Club Of San Francisco’s Veronica and I got hold of a copy of Jimmy Smith’s lacklustre a less then incredible Softly As A Summer Breeze.

In May Sonny Clark’s Sonny Clark Trio was followed by another Sonny in the form of Sonny Rollins On Impulse, which sounds like a compilation album but isn’t. Later in the month, my local second-hand record store yielded up a copy of John Coltrane’s Ole.

I took another look at Grant Green with his lesser known Iron City, featuring a strong version of Hi-Heeled Sneakers, before returning to Blue Note and Harold Vick’s Steppin’ Out and later in September with Joe Henderson and Inner Urge.

I took the view that Archie Shepp and Dollar Brand’s Duet was slightly spoiled by Shepp’s poor sax technique on a couple of tracks, but I enjoyed Hank Mobley’s great Roll Call, Grant Green’s Green Street and Freddie Hubbard’s Ready For Freddie.

2014 was the year in which a bit of research yielded some more answers about Freddie Roach’s later years and I shelled out for a first pressing of All That’s Good which turned out to be much better than a shocking review suggested it would be.

I’ve already got a the first few reviews for 2015 in mind, so please come back soon and see what I’ve been listening to and remember that comments are most welcome.

One New Year’s Resolution– the quality of the photography at downwithit must improve. No excuses!

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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.

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