I'm impossibly sentimental. So I often wind up buying CD versions of the albums I want most. I love the convenience of the digital age, but there's a romance to holding and looking at what I'm listening to. Force of habit from the LP days, I suppose. But from time to time, I stray and download albums like a normal person to save time and space.
When I choose to download, it's usually because something is so hot I can't wait to order it. I want to hear it immediately. One such gotta-have-it-now album that I downloaded a few days ago was Johnny Griffin's The Congregation. It was the tenor saxophonist's third album for Blue Note recorded in October 1957.
Until now, The Congregation had completely escaped my radar. Which is surprising since I enjoy Griffin, and the album's cover has one of those famous but too-soft and tentative Andy Warhol illustrations. That meek cover is sort of funny considering Griffin's sound was anything but tentative or pastel.
My favorite Griffin recordings have always been his work with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Thelonious Monk. But on Monday, while listening to one of those late-night college jazz radio shows, the student deejay ambitiously played both sides of The Congregation. Halfway through the second track, I was already downloading the album at iTunes. It's that good.
Griffin had—and has—a full, robust sound. He's also probably the
only tenor saxophonist to have recorded with both Bing Crosby and Thelonious Monk. "Lockjaw" Davis loved playing with the "Little Giant" (as Griffin was known) because his sound was like wet leather—tough and impossible to hang on to.
To quote Griffin: "I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode." The rhythm section on The Congregation cooks—Sonny Clark is on piano (pictured), Paul Chambers is on bass and Kenny Dennis is on drums. A month after this recording, Dennis played behind Sonny Rollins during his famed November 1957 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Fueled by this go-getter rhythm section, Griffin unleashes a sly, slippery sound as he weaves eel-like in and out of melody lines and improvised ideas. Critic Ralph J. Gleason said it best: "Griffin manages to blow longer without refueling than you would ordinarily consider possible...He is able to play almost all there could possibly be played in any give chorus."
So true, so true. The Little Giant turns 80 in April. Celebrate with The Congregation.
JazzWax tracks: Every track on The Congregation is rock solid. Just note that the cymbals on the digital download sound a bit over-miked and icy to me. You may want to sample the tracks first before downloading to see how tracks sound coming through your speakers.
The title track has a soulful, down-by-the- riverside feel and swings the whole way through. Latin Quarter is based on the changes to Tangerine, and Griffin gives it a massive tenor treatment. I can't recall the last time the standard I'm Glad There Is You sounded this good. It can only be compared to Gene Ammons' definitive version of Canadian Sunset, from Boss Tenor (1960).
Main Spring is a straight-up blues. Sonny Clark takes a crisp, skippy solo, followed by a perfect example of Paul Chambers' spirited arco bowing. Listen to Sonny Clark tear off on the intro to It's You Or No One. Griffin then races after him before Clark returns with an extended solo. Dig how Griffin closes down the standard, with Clark answering in the final measures.
The album wrapper is the standard I Remember You, which again features a blistering solo by Griffin. He gets inside the tune and flips it around in what seems to be one continuous breath.
JazzWax video clip: The "Little Giant" was captured on film in France in 1971 with Art Taylor on drums, Rene Urtreger on piano and Alby Cullaz on bass. Go here to see Griffin's tireless technique in action. And dig "Mr. Cool's" drumming. Wow.
And here's Griffin in 1965 in France with Wes Montgomery and a group of European jazz musicians. Compare Griffin's blowing with the rest of reeds. None of them could bring it on like Griffin. And dig Wes' swinging guitar.