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Johnny Griffin was one of the greatest tenor sax players of all time. He was born into a musical family (his father played coronet, his mother was a singer) in Chicago, Illinois on April 24, 1928 and died in France on July 25, 2008.

When Griffin was 12 years old he saw Gene Ammons perform, and within two years he was playing the alto sax publicly. Shortly after he graduated from high school, he was hired to play with Lionel Hampton’s big band and switched to tenor sax.

Throughout the years that followed, he would go on to perform with most of the big name jazz artists of the era, including Jo Jones, Arnett Cobb, Thelonious Monk, Pepper Adams, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, to name just a few.

Griffin recorded copiously, both as a leader and as a sideman. The album I want to tell you about this time around is the classic 1957 release, “A Blowin’ Session Vol. 2.”

Johnny Griffin-A Blowin Session-front

Part of the appeal of “A Blowin’ Session”, besides the material recorded, lies in the choice of personnel. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect group of musicians at the time.

Johnny Griffin, tenor sax
Hank Mobley, tenor sax
John Coltrane, tenor sax
Lee Morgan, trumpet
Wynton Kelly, piano
Paul Chambers, bass
Art Blakey, drums

In 1999, in his new liner notes for the RVG reissue of “A Blowin’ Session” on compact disk, Ben Blumenthal notes that the inclusion of Coltrane was due to a happy accident. The musicians were standing on the sidewalk waiting for a ride to Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio when who should happen to walk by but John Coltrane.

One thing led to another, and when all was said and done, the group included three tenors instead of two. That fortuitous meeting led to the only recording session where Griffin and Coltrane appear together.

The original vinyl LP configuration of “A Blowin’ Session” included only four songs. The RVG remaster includes one additional song, an alternate take of the Griffin original, “Smoke Stack.”

The album opens with the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern standard, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which opens with Blakey attacking his kit in a machine gun style. He is quickly joined by Griffin and the rhythm section and we are treated to a real tour de force of pure bebop blowing. Eventually Griffin steps back and Morgan takes the lead with a burst of staccato blowing that leaves you breathless. Mobley and Coltrane take their turns as well, and the three tenors together give us such faultless performances that you could be forgiven for thinking that you were actually listening to one blower.

Here are Griffin and the boys performing “The Way You Look Tonight”:

Track two is the first Griffin original we hear, the oddly named “Ball Bearings.” (Unfortunately, while Ira Gitler’s original liner notes mentions the song, he did not chose to enlighten us on the meaning of the title.) Regardless of the meaning, “Ball Bearings” opens with the whole gang jumping right in. Not quite a minute in Coltrane steps forward and treats us to a wonderfully lyrical solo. Trumpeter Morgan follows in short order.

(1957 was a big year for Morgan. He appeared on no less than nineteen albums that year… one for each year of his life to that point, as it were. Simply amazing.)

Next up we have another standard, “All The Things You Are” from Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Kelly opens on piano along with the rhythm section, followed in short order by Griffin, then Coltrane. This is one of those light-hearted songs that is almost impossible to dislike no matter who performs it, and in the hands of a group like this it is sheer lyrical poetry. Morgan steps in to remind us why he is there, but this show is for the tenors and he knows it. Kelly treats us to some mighty fancy fingering on the black and whites, and then we are again back to the tenors until the close.

The final track included on the original 1957 vinyl disk is another song from Griffin’s pen, “Smoke Stack.” Kelly handles the head with his usual skill, and is joined a few seconds later by Griffin and Morgan. Griffin may have had an odd penchant for writing music with odd titles, but there is nothing odd about the music itself! Gitler’s liner notes call “Smoke Stack” a blues, but to me this sounds like pure and not-so-simple bebop. Morgan’s trumpet-work is superb, of course, and the effect of the whole is to leave you shaking with emotion that such beauty exists in the world.

Or maybe I have a fever, a touch of the flu, I’m not sure.

The final track is a slightly longer version of “Smoke Stack.” Like the original, this one opens with Kelly’s piano, although the notes are somewhat different. I don’t have the musical training to give you a note-by-note comparison of the two versions, nor am I going to tell you which I like best. You will make your own choice anyway, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Here are the guys doing the original version of “Smoke Stack.” Note that there is a short commercial at the beginning which you can elect to skip after the first few seconds. Sorry!

Given the material and the personnel involved in presenting it, there is no way that I could NOT say that you will find the album “A Blowin’ Session Vol. 2” to be an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!

You can learn more about Johnny Griffin and his music by checking out the links below. His music is available for purchase or legal downloading at all the usual suspects.

The New York Times published an extensive biography of Griffin as part of his obituary in that publication.

NPR’s web site maintains a nice selection of links related to Griffin, and you can access them here.

Bob Bernotas has reproduced a quite long interview he conducted with Griffin on Mel Martin’s web site.

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