Johnny Griffin ‘Four Original Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

The fastest blowing ‘Little Giant’ on the planet is his moniker and Chicagoan Johnny Griffin has enjoyed an illustrious career, which in the early part started in Chicago and then New York, before later in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he grew tired of the stresses and strains of life in the United States, and moved to Europe, where he finally settled in France and that decision alone probably saved and extended his life. The four albums contained within focus firmly on the 1950’s when Griffin was beginning to make his mark and they cover Blue Note and Riverside sessions, and as such are an ideal place for any budding fan of hard bop jazz to begin their voyage of discovery with the tenor saxophonist.

Debuting at Blue Note as a leader on ‘Introducing’ from 1956, a young Johnny Griffin is surrounded by some more seasoned musicians of the calibre of Max Roach on drums, Curly Russell on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano. The tenorist excelled in a quartet setting and this recording afforded him the opportunity to showcase his compositional skills and three of the seven numbers are Griffin original. This was not in fact his debut as a leader per se since he recorded an album in the same year for Argo in Chicago, but this is by far the stronger and it is his reading of the Great American songbook that impresses with a marvellous rendition of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, and delicate ballads such as ‘These Foolish Things’ and ‘Lover Man’. Does exactly what it says on the tin might be an apt description of ‘Blowing Session’, that is definitely not for the faint hearted and pairs Griffin with the titan that is John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. An honourable score-draw is the result and with a dream rhythm section of Art Blakey on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano, this album firmly established Griffin as a musician to watch out for. A third Blue Note album, ‘Congregation’, took matters one step further and is a candidate for one of the most striking cover art fronts designed by no less than Andy Warhol and the original is a true collector’s item for that reason alone. Sonny Clark on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and the little known Kenny Dennis on drums make this an extra special outing, with a lovely piece in, ‘Latin Quarter’, hinting at Griffin’s later love of French culture, and more evidence of Griffin’s deftness of touch on ballads, with ‘I’m Glad There Is You’. A separate Riverside album, ‘Way Out’, was a one-off quartet date with five originals on offer, but it is the fiery take on Ray Noble standard, ‘Cherokee’, that stands out from the rest, with Kenny Drew on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

A fine selection of albums and handy to have the Blue Note’s in one place. For a fitting follow up, re-issuing some of the harder to find Riverside dates, with big band as well as in quartet format from the early 1960’s would be an ideal second time around.

Tim Stenhouse