Alto saxophonist Hank Crawford and Hammond B3 organ virtuoso Jimmy McGriff formed one of the most popular collaborations in jazz. Both men were masters of their instruments, and each had a highly successful career as a leader of his own group. Together, they were astounding!
Crawford and McGriff recorded quite a few albums together, and picking the best, even out of the mere five or six discs in my personal collection, would be hard. So I cheated. In 2001, their record label, Milestone, released a CD entitled “The Best Of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff”.
Before I go any further, introductions are in order for those of you who may have never heard of Crawford and McGriff.
Hank Crawford was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 24, 1934. He originally played piano, but then switched to alto sax. After high school, he played professionally with such musical giants as B.B. King, Ike Turner, Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and others. He died in his hometown of Memphis on January 29, 2009.
Jimmy McGriff was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 3, 1936. When he was eight years old, he was given a drum set, and within a few years he also learned the bass, alto sax, and vibes, all before he graduated from high school. His first professional gigs were as a bass player, mainly to supplement his income from being a Philadelphia police officer. In 1956 he bought a Hammond B3 organ and taught himself how to play it. Eventually he quit the police force and studied music at the Juilliard School of Music. McGriff had a long, successful career right up until his death on May 24, 2008, in Philadelphia.
“The Best Of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff” consists of a dozen songs. Because they are from several different albums, the personnel varies from one song to another.
Overall, these are the folks who made this music happen:
Hank Crawford, alto sax
Jimmy McGriff, Hammond B3 organ (XB3 on tracks 9 & 10)
Billy Preston, piano (tracks 5 and 12)
George Benson, guitar (tracks 1 and 2)
Wayne Boyd, guitar (tracks 9 & 10)
Jimmy Ponder, guitar tracks 3-8)
Cornell Dupree, guitar (tracks 11 & 12)
Bernard Purdie, drums (tracks 2, 3, 4, 9-11)
Vance James, drums (tracks 5-8, 12)
Mel Lewis, drums (track 1)
Crawford & McGriff excelled at bluesy, soulful, funky tunes, and the first track on this album, “The Frim Fram Sauce”, is a good example. Culled from the 1986 album “Soul Survivors”, this is a lively blues more than anything. Benson’s guitar solo about halfway through will remind you what a virtuoso he was, and Lewis is so good on the drums that it makes one wonder why he was relegated to only this one song.
Next we have a beautiful ballad, the Hammerstein/Wilkinson tune “Because Of You”. This, too, is from “Soul Survivors”, and is a very quiet, plaintive piece. I think this might have been better off had it been placed a little further down the track list to provide the listener with a change of pace, but regardless of that, this is unquestionably a very beautiful song. Crawford and McGriff’s melancholic playing will definitely bring you down to earth.
“Soul Survivors” is also the source for the next song, “One Mint Julep”, one of Rudy Toombs classic compositions. (Among many others, Toombs wrote “One Scotch, One Bourbon, And One Beer”, which was featured in the TV series “Glee”.) “One Mint Julep” is a lively song that definitely livens things up a bit after “Because Of You”.
“One Mint Julep” was, of course, a huge hit for Ray Charles back in the 1960’s. While this version probably never will reach that kind of exposure, it is a great song that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Especially delightful is Crawford’s playful alto blowing, which he takes into the lower register of that instrument’s range to wonderful effect.
Here are Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff performing “One Mint Julep” in the only video I could find from this album:
The standard “Second Time Around” from Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen is up next. This, of course, is another mellow love song, albeit a much more well-known tune than many of the others here. This is also the fourth song from “Soul Survivors”, which is a shame, in a way. One could easily argue that there were a lot of other songs that could have been included instead of this one, from other albums, but producer Bob Porter apparently had his own agenda going here.
“The River’s Invitation”, from the pen of legendary R&B powerhouse Percy Mayfield, composer of “Hit The Road Jack” among others, is next. Whatever label you choose to hang on this one, jazz, blues, or funky soul, this is one superb piece of music. The song runs a little over eight and a half minutes, which gives the guys plenty of time to stretch their legs and take it to the limit.
This one is from the 1987 release, “Steppin’ Up”, which featured Billy Preston on piano. Preston frequently attacked his music with a heartfelt, joyous intensity, and it’s interesting to note that his work here is much more restrained than you might expect.
“Jimmy’s Groove” is next. This is the only McGriff original on the disk, and I have to say it has always been one of my favorite McGriff songs. This version is from the 1990 disk, “On The Blues Side”. “Jimmy’s Groove” is a happy, uptempo blues that will bring a smile to your face.
“Any Day Now” is another animated import lifted from “On The Blues Side”. This tune, written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, is a lively ballad, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron. Crawford’s alto provides the plaintive side, while Vance James’ drums and the rest of the rhythm section drive it ever onward.
Lester Young’s immortal standard, “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” has a lighthearted nature and it’s easy to imagine the guys had a great time with this one. Everyone jumps right in at the beginning, then everyone except Ponder and James takes a backseat for a while. Then Crawford & McGriff rejoin. Running only five minutes, this is another song from “On The Blues Side”.
Track nine is from the album I originally had intended to write about, 1997’s “Road Tested.” It is also the only song on this album that was written by the principals, Crawford & McGriff. That would be “A Little Bit South Of East St. Louis”. This is a delightful song, which is a good thing because at just under nine minutes it is the longest piece of music on this album.
One of John Coltrane’s many compositions, “Mr. P.C.”, is next. Like most of the others, this is an energetic song that leaves little time for introspection but rather makes you want to get up and move! Like the previous song, this one is from “Road Tested”. It does sound a little odd to hear Crawford blowing his way through a Coltrane number, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a great song that everyone does a wonderful job on.
Up next is “Bow Legs”, from the 1999 album “Crunch Time”. This song features Cornell Dupree on guitar and has a laid back opening that can easily mislead you into thinking this is going to be another mellow ballad. Instead it’s a burning blues, with what seems to me to be an occasional resemblance to “Down Home Blues”. Dupree makes the most of his solo about halfway through, and definitely leaves you wishing he had been given more of a role here.
The album closes with “Lift Every Voice And Sing”. I always thought this was a church-inspired gospel song, but during my research for this article I discovered that is wrong. It is, apparently, nothing less than “The Black National Anthem”. Interestingly enough, the song’s writer, James Weldon Johnson, was not a former slave, but rather was a writer, lawyer, poet, songwriter, and journalist, among other things.
Despite the fallacy of my preconceived notion about the song’s origins, it will take only a few seconds of listening for you to see how easy it was for me to jump to that mistaken conclusion. For “Lift Every Voice And Sing” sounds like nothing so much as it sounds like an old-fashioned gospel tune. If you like gospel music, then you’ll love this song. If you don’t like gospel music, well, you probably won’t care for this one either.
Putting that aside, “The Best Of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff” is a great album that does a fine, if not perfect, job of showcasing just how outstanding these two were. I am certain that you will find this album to be a worthy addition to your own personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other, night!
You can learn more about Hank Crawford and his music by checking out the extensive biography of him on the Concord web site. His obituary in the New York Times is available here.
Jimmy McGriff’s official web site is still online, but it appears to be dying a slow death, as some links and graphics have ceased working. Despite that, a huge archive of personal photos uploaded by his widow, Margaret, is still working fine. There is also a nice bio of him on the allmusic.com web site.
The music of both of these gentlemen is available for purchase at all the usual places.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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