What can I say about Johnny Griffin that hasn’t already been said? If you answered “Nothing!”, you are absolutely right. By anyone’s measure, Griffin was one of the all time greats on the tenor sax. He had a career that spanned seven decades, and that’s no mean feat.
Johnny Griffin was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 24, 1928 and died in his adopted home, France, on July 25, 2008. At the tender age of 12 Griffin saw a performance by Gene Ammons, and at that point the course of history changed. He took up the tenor sax, and was hired by Lionel Hampton’s band shortly after his high school graduation.
This is Griffin’s second appearance here. The first was JFASN# 75, which was published on May 11, 2013. The subject of that review was Griffin’s outstanding 1957 release, “A Blowin’ Session Volume 2.” I’ll refer you to that previous article for more biographical information on Griffin.
This time around I’ve picked an album from later in his career, the 1990 release on the Antilles label, “The Cat.”
Unsurprisingly, Griffin snagged a group of sidemen who were all “A-List” caliber. The personnel were:
Johnny Griffin, tenor sax
Curtis Fuller, Trombone
Steve Nelson, vibraphone
Kenny Washington, drums
Dennis Irwin, bass
Michael Weiss, piano
“The Cat” gives us nine songs, all written by Griffin. I will tell you right off that at first this album did not appeal to me. The pacing of many of the songs presented here is considerably slower than I usually prefer.
However, as I have mentioned on more than one previous occasion, there is Saturday early night and there is Saturday late night. With repeated listening, this album grew on me as an obvious offering for Saturday late night.
Having said that, I need to also say that my overall feelings on this album are still in conflict, which fact will become obvious the further you read.
First up is the title track, which opens with Weiss on the piano giving us a few bars of what sounds for all the world like music from a horror film. He is soon joined by the others, and visions of The Munsters fade momentarily.
Here is Griffin performing “The Cat” before a live audience with, unfortunately, a different (and smaller) lineup of backing artists.
Following “The Cat” we find a quiet melody called “Wistful.” The song does live up to its name, bouncing back and forth in style between pensive and lively. Fortunately, the guys spend more time on the happy side of the street, otherwise “Wistful” would be a dreary song indeed.
Skipping ahead, track four is “Chicago’s Calling,” probably the liveliest piece of music so far. This is a great piece of traditional hard bop, more like the kind of music Griffin was known so well for. Griffin, Washington and Weiss have this one mostly to themselves and do a wonderful job with it.
Here are Griffin and the guys doing “Chicago’s Calling”:
“Woe Is Me” follows “Chicago’s Calling,” and I have to tell you I don’t care for the title or the song. I can get depressed all on my own, thank you. I don’t need a song with a title like this to help me along. (Especially not 9+ minutes of it!) This is a quietly depressing song that that never-the-less has an odd but disturbing beauty to it. It did put me to sleep while I was listening to it! J
“The Count” is next, another buoyant piece of music along the lines of “Chicago’s Calling.” The guys do a great job on this one, and it will NOT put you to sleep. 😉
The same is true of “63rd Street Theme.” While it is far from the hard bop juggernaut that tenor sax giants like Griffin and Dexter Gordon were famous for, it still has the moves to keep you alert and interested.
Time is rapidly running out on me, so I’m going to mention just one more song, “Hot Sake.” This one is more like the kind of thing people expected from Griffin. He runs the scales like nobody’s business, and at times it’s hard to hear the individual notes of Irwin’s bass.
Bottom line: “The Cat” may not be for everyone. Hard core Griffin lovers will want to get it simply to complete their collection. Others, who appreciate the music for its own sake, will find a lot here to like. “The Cat” may not make an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, but you will find a lot to like here none-the-les.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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