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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf, Glyn Pursglove

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The Best of

Riverside 0888072313323



  1. Cherokee
  2. Woody 'n You
  3. Rhythm-a-ning
  4. 63rd Street Theme
  5. Tickle Toe
  6. Wade in the Water
  7. Straight, No Chaser
  8. Full House
  9. Autumn Leaves

Johnny Griffin - Tenor sax
Kenny Drew - Piano (tracks 1, 2)
Wilbur Ware - Bass (tracks 1, 2)
Philly Joe Jones - Drums (tracks 1, 2)
Thelonious Monk - Piano (track 3)
Ahmed Abdul-Malik - Bass (track 3)
Roy Haynes - Drums (track 3)
Blue Mitchell - Trumpet (track 4)
Julian Priester - Trombone (tracks 4, 6)
Wynton Kelly - Piano (tracks 4, 8)
Sam Jones - Bass (track 4)
Albert "Tootie" Heath - Drums (track 4)
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis - Tenor sax (tracks 5, 7)
Junior Mance - Piano (tracks 5, 7)
Larry Gales - Bass (tracks 5, 7)
Ben Riley - Drums (tracks 5, 7)
Clark Terry, Bob Bryant - Trumpets (track 6)
Matthew Gee - Trombone (track 6)
Pat Patrick - Alto sax (track 6)
Edwin Williams - Tenor sax (track 6)
Charlie Davis - Baritone sax (track 6)
Harold Mabern - Piano (track 6)
Bob Cranshaw - Bass (track 6)
Charlie Persip - Drums (track 6)
Wes Montgomery - Guitar (track 8)
Paul Chambers - Bass (track 8)
Jimmy Cobb - Drums (track 8)
Ronnie Mathews - Piano (track 9)
Ray Drummond - Bass (track 9)
Keith Copeland - Drums (track 9)

In my previous Johnny Griffin review, I noted this remarkable tenor-saxist's sad death in July 2008. So he deserves a "Best of" collection to remind us of his finest moments. Despite its title, this is hardly a selection of the best recordings from his playing career of more than 60 years. It is limited to sessions recorded between 1958 and 1962, with one final track from 1978. However, within its limitations, it captures much of Griffin's appeal and his versatility.

His nickname "The Fastest Gun in the West" arose from his ability to play streams of notes at very fast tempos and, indeed, this is represented by the opening Cherokee, where Johnny exhibits his facility while still conveying the structure of the tune. Drummer Philly Joe Jones contributes an equally stirring solo. Woody 'n You has the same personnel but it starts with Griffin duetting with Philly Joe's drums in almost free-form mode.
Rhythm-a-ning is the first of two Thelonious Monk compositions on the album, reminding us of Griffin's closeness with Monk. This track was recorded in 1958 at the Five Spot in New York, when Griff was with Monk's quartet. You can hear Thelonious urging Griffin on to play more and more choruses, before taking his own wayward piano solo. The tempo slows for 63rd Street Theme, recorded by Griffin's sextet after he left Monk. It is an easy-going blues, with solos in succession from Blue Mitchell, Johnny Griffin, Wynton Kelly, Julian Priester and Sam Jones.

The speed picks up again for the old Count Basie standard Tickle Toe (written by the very different tenor-saxist Lester Young). This is one of the tenor duels that Griffin recorded with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Davis solos with his trademark growl; Junior Mance supplies a neat piano solo; and then the two tenors are contrasted as they swap decreasing numbers of bars. This is an invigorating performance, with both tenorists clearly enjoying one another's company.

I wish I could be as complimentary about Wade in the Water but it backs Griffin with a big band and he is mainly restricted to playing short, punctuating phrases in Norman Simmons' overpoweringly ponderous arrangement. Admittedly the tune was a hit for Ramsey Lewis a few years later, but this version definitely doesn't deserve inclusion in a "Best of" selection.

Straight, No Chaser returns us to the more worthwhile pairing of Griffin and Lockjaw Davis - recorded in 1961, two years before Johnny moved to Europe. Full House was written by guitarist Wes Montgomery, who is featured alongside Griffin and a famous Miles Davis rhythm section (Kelly, Chambers & Cobb). This is an attractive jazz waltz on which Griffin proves that he can play gracefully. The album ends with Autumn Leaves, recorded in 1978 on one of Johnny's rare returns to the USA. Griff's tone seems to have filled out and matured but he could still play at an incredible pace.


Tony Augarde 

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