Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet: self-titled

Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet
Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet

Tenor duels were a big attraction in the Kansas City Swing era. Sax men lined up in the wings waiting to do battle with whoever ruled the roost at the time. The ensuing contests become the stuff of legend. With the arrival of bebop, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray introduced a duo tenor line-up that relied more on mutuality than out-blowing each other. It was this sound that the fictionalised Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty, enthused over in On the Road — the live recording “The Hunt” to be exact. The format has remained popular — two kindred spirits exploring a double-headed approach to improvisation — with a hint of the old gladiatorial conflicts adding a little spice to proceedings.

The genre tended to favour the “tough tenor” men — hard blowing, blues based musicians with a big, rounded sound. They came no tougher than Johnny Griffin, who earned the title in the late fifties with a series of “hard bop” sessions. Hard bop as a term was almost invented for Griffin — denoting a rapid but slightly simplified, muscular take on bebop. In somewhat over-simplified terms, it was seen as a bluesy, virile reaction to the chamber quartet aestheticism of the West Coast sound. Griffin, anyway, seemed to personify the key qualities. He blew fast, long and very hard. After a series of classic encounters with the likes of Hank Mobley and Coltrane he formed a tenor duo with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in the early sixties. Then, like many before him, he settled in Europe.

Now 72, Griffin continues to record and with this Quintet has found himself a worthy replacement for Davis. Steve Grossman is not a name that readily springs to mind, yet he too has a place in jazz history, having at the tender age of seventeen replaced Wayne Shorter in the Miles Davis Bitches’ Brew era band. You won’t however find a hint of those heady days in Grossman’s work here which is down-the-line post-bop mainstream. The two men play in very similar style, in fact, and the result is a meaty and unpretentious set that will please those who like their jazz direct, not too adventurous, and with plenty of drive about it.

The opening cut sets the mood. “Take the D Train” owes nothing to Ellington but plenty to The Jazz Messengers or Horace Silver. It swings hard and shows Griffin may have lost something of his pace but nothing in the way of stamina or energy. Grossman’s slightly more rasping style matches his partner pound for pound. The approach is unfussy and invigorating. Most of the other tracks follow that lead and are taken at just above mid-tempo but there is some good balladry on offer too. It is the kind of album that would not have disgraced Blue Note’s late fifties’ catalogue

This is a real meeting of equals, even down to composer credits. Three of the tunes are by Griffin, three by Grossman. The other three tracks consist of two standards — Mercer/Arlen’s “This Time the Dreams on Me”, “Nica’s Tempo” by the neglected genius of late bop, Gigi Gryce, and one piece by the quintet’s piano player, Michael Weiss. Of the two standards “Nica’s Tempo” is the more memorable. One of the great tunes of the heyday of this type of sound, it is played with spirit and a not too reverent joyfulness. This is jazz with a smile on its face as can be seen in jokey song-titles such as “Don’t Say Goodbye (Just Leave)”, actually a moving ballad. Weiss’ “Power Station” is possibly the best ensemble piece. Soul jazz in the old sense of the word, with a repeated chorus reminiscent of John Handy or Cannonball Adderley, it is free-flowing and decidedly funky.

The self-penned songs are minor variations within a well-mapped field. Nothing striking, the uptempo numbers are just functional frameworks for the horns to get busy around. By contrast, the two slower numbers are surprisingly lyrical and lovingly executed. Hard bop never abandoned the ballad, just as West Coast jazz was never as passionless as some maintained. “Don’t Say Goodbye” is tender with the right amount of “ache” while “Little Pugie” has the potential to become part of the general repertoire. On this Grossman composition, the two tenors achieve great interplay and understanding and the effect is mellow without being at all sugary. A rough edge is retained even in the more refined moments.

Apart from Weiss as composer, the musical laurels go wholly to the saxes. This is partly due to unselfishness by bass (Pierre Michelot), piano and drums (Alvin Queen) but I have to say that their odd solo spots are a little bland. Perhaps the ripe sounds of the lead players inhibited them a little. It does not matter much as the overall texture is rich enough for anyone. After a whole album one might tire slightly of the lack of risk-taking. There is nothing here that jazz buffs will not have heard before. In the end, the fullness of the twin sax sound makes up for that with a bit to spare. This is the sort of band you want to be resident at your local jazz club — reliable, relaxed and aware of the tradition. No new heights are scaled but they clamber about previously explored routes with great agility and seem to be loving every minute of it.