Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Johnny Griffin 1928-2008

If memory serves, and often it goes awol, I first heard the Little Giant's horn on an NPR special that I recorded years ago, and listened to with ear buds while laying around a campsite in the Ozark mountains. I was utterly captivated by the way that Griffin was able to tell little stories over and over, with each one presenting a different moral. At least that is what I told my brother I heard.

It wasn't until recently that I actually acquired some Griffin recordings. The first was The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk. After Jazz, my favorite musical tradition is Celtic. In this recording, Griffin builds on traditional Irish tunes, like Danny Boy and Green Grow the Rushes, without losing a single ounce of jazz feeling. It is not an easy disc to find, but I was pleased to find it on eMusic. The greatest power of a powerful jazz composer is that of listening, and Johnny Griffin knew how to listen to a distinct musical tradition, and how to listen to his own marvelous transliteration of its bones and sinews into the language of jazz.

I think that Griffin's finest work might have been the recordings at the Five Spot Cafe with Thelonious Monk. Monk was almost certainly the greatest composer of the bop tradition, precisely because his work presents such delicious challenges to any interpreter. Griffin is more than up to that challenge. The genius that is evident in The Kerry Dancers is equally evident here: the ability to master the geometry of a new kosmos and create new worlds within it.

Another good sample of Griffin's work is Blues Up and Down, with Eddie Lockjaw Davis. Here the task is to managed a conversation with that other great tenor player, backed by a fine rhythm section.

But it's The Kerry Dancers that does it for me. Here is a sample.

Johnny Griffin/The Kerry Dancers/The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk/1962
Barry Harris p, Ron Carter b, and Ben Riley d. If you like it, join eMusic and get the whole thing.

Griffin died just hours before a concert. He was an incredible beautiful musical mind. Don't let him get past you. You won't hear this again in any universe.

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