Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman – Quintet

Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman
(Dreyfus – 2001)
by Phyllis A. Lodge

The Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet catches your ear, keeps your attention, and puts out 150% of the frequency with little or no sweat. The music flows like honey while carrying a ‘big stick’. After all, in the court of jazz, Johnny Griffin is pure royalty, and he pulls no punches in establishing his mastery within this domain from the very outset. The only personnel I am familiar with on this session are bassist Pierre Michelot and, of course, the great Johnny Griffin who’s been part of my musical education for years. Rest assured, however, the “Great Grif” (I hope he doesn’t object to my nickname) has gathered a host of highly respectable artists here, and the workmanship is superb.

The session opens with Take the D Train, Grossman’s composition. …D Train… is one of those hard-swinging pieces that any self-respecting musician would want to step out there with. It is alive, sprightly and solidly rooted, musically. It harks back to that era when musicians had to emerge swinging if they didn’t want to get cussed out – either by their fellow musicians or the audience! This CD marks my introduction to Steve Grossman, and the very fact that he’s locking horns with the “Great Grif” is sufficient testimonial for me as to the caliber of his musicianship. Grossman opens the number with a solo, and provides ample space for us to experience his style. I find his sound clear, and his musical ideas combine a nice balance of innocence and tenacity.

Then, Johnny Griffin just sort of eases into his solo right after Grossman. You recognize him right away with his rolling, near-growl that he issues like raw silk. He’s adept at throwing in that little slice of a classic tune here, or adding a pinch of the head of a standard there – and he never breaks his rhythm. It transforms our listening into active participation when a musician graces the tune with such memoirs. This brilliant artistic flourish is rapidly becoming an “endangered species” in this great art form, and we sure need more folks listening to musicians like Johnny Griffin to learn the ropes. And before I let go of this, I’ve gotta talk about drummer Alvin Queen. He totally wiped me out with his solo on this number. (And I was sitting on the floor). I had to stop, stand up and catch my breath. You’ll see.

Johnny Griffin’s Waltswing is a delightful piece that blends a variety of musical energies that agitate back and forth in a warm, peaceful groove. It’s not only enjoyable listening, it makes you want to just stand up and sway a bit. And bassist Pierre Michelot brings the number to rest with his witty approach coupled with a gutsy flourish.

Don’t Say good-by (Just Leave). Delightfully biting wit aside, this Johnny Griffin original treats us to one of his traditionally profound ballads-strait-from-the-soul. I can just see him now: eyes closed, shoulders hunching gently, head tilting to one side, spinning the phrases by softly shaking his head from side to side to urge every little morsel of emotion out of his imagination. And he sprinkles the mournful mood with an occasional high-pitched cry, or a cross between a sobbing or an ironic chuckle. His ballads are beautiful stories that he commands through a talking horn. And then, he ends the number, leaving your head swimming in musical fantasies.

Nica’s Tempo. This Gigi Gryce composition was written in tribute to the legendary Jazz Baroness, as Nica was affectionately called. Nica was like a ‘patron saint’ to musical greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Barry Harris. The piece carries the bebop spirit. It feels like a “Saturday afternoon summer, in anticipation of that night’s musical happenings around town. I appreciate the inclusion of this piece on this CD in that it rekindles memories of such a musically powerful period, Speaking of power, we come to Power Station, penned by pianist Michael Weiss. Serious stuff here. This one simmers with gripping intensity. I even heard some hollerin’ under the music. This is perfect cookout, DJ battle, (you’ll get some high points), or Saturday night fish-fry music. And our friend Michelot shares a back-slapping bass solo before stepping graciously aside so piano-man Weiss can lend his spice to the pot. And then…Grossman and “Great Grif” both step back in to turn the number every way except loose. This one’s a real kicker/

Little Pugie is another Grossman composition that beautifully balances the atmosphere after the Power Station storm. It feels sentimental as it lulls the listener onto a cushion of sound that is both wistfully and tastefully executed by the “Great Grif” himself. I can listen to Johnny Griffin interpret “blues” ballads forever. And I tip my hat to Grossman in whom I see a sensitive composer.

You’ve Never Been There. The “Great Grif” graces us with another original, and I felt a delightful Monkish humor from it. I do know that the Great “Grif” deeply admires the ‘High Priest’. I don’t know where it is that we’ve never been, but when he finishes ‘going there’ we can say we have too been.

And in This Time the Dream’s On Me, another classic, the number swings gently, the way one swings that first grandchild on their first trip to the park, — lovingly and filled with smiles. I am somewhat familiar with the tune, and it brings with it the gratefulness of seeing a welcome familiar face. I must comment on the organization of the music on this CD which is so beautifully orchestrated. Each number feels exquisitely placed like a finely set gem.

And our newfound friend Steve Grossman, closes the set with his original, Taurus People. The piece has a charm that invokes for me a celebration of the joy inherent in this music, and the rewards of expressing through it, bringing the session to a satisfying close. Griffin and Grossman engage in an enthusiastic exchange true to the tradition of this music. It is a fitting wrap up to this fine collection that condenses light years of musical experiences and personalities in less than an hour. A mighty feat, yes, but these great men pull it off with power and grace. As the great Temptations so succinctly put it: Get Ready for the Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet.