Johnny Griffin Quartet | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Johnny Griffin Quartet 


Like the swallows flocking to Capistrano, the return of the great tenor man Johnny Griffin signals a seasonal shift: if the Little Giant is in Chicago, you know it must be spring. (And you certainly can't tell from the temperature.) Griffin comes home at the end of every April to play the Jazz Showcase, in celebration of his own birthday and that of the club's proprietor, Joe Segal, born the same date; but then Griffin could turn a trip to the dentist into a holiday with his eagle-taloned and lionhearted soloing. Nearly 70, Griffin still plays with the full-throttle sound, the brash swagger at even slow tempos, and the profligacy of ideas that mark the Chicago tenor tradition. But like the other great Chicago tenorists--Von Freeman, Eddie Harris, Gene Ammons, to name three--Griffin resists easy categorization. He came of age during the bebop years, but although he uses that idiom's harmonic vocabulary, the syntax of his solos harks back to the great swing-era players. Griffin may double or even triple the tempo--indeed, other tenor players once regarded him as the fastest man alive--but his phrasing takes more from Coleman Hawkins than from Charlie Parker. Similarly, his wailing use of the upper register reflects his formative years in the swing orchestra of Lionel Hampton--not to mention the rhythm-and-blues bands of his youth. In retrospect, it's no surprise that Griffin fit so nicely into the late-50s quartet of Thelonious Monk, another musician whose playing never quite matched the bebop profile (even though he helped invent the idiom). In any case, the wide net Griffin casts with his decades-spanning improvisations helps account for the longevity of his appeal. Griffin spins his centrifugal solos out in front of his excellent New York-based band, Kenny Washington on drums, John Webber on bass, and Michael Weiss on piano. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Johnny Griffin by Marc PoKempner.

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