Lynn René Bayley
, January 2009
This DVD, issued decades earlier on VHS, features two of the most exciting jazz groups of its time or any other. First up is the quartet of tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who died at his home in France (July 29, 2008, of undisclosed causes) shortly after this performance’s reissue. Identified as a proponent of the “hard bop” school, meaning that he combined the upper harmonic chord changes of Charlie Parker and Wardell Gray with the blues-drenched playing of R&B saxists, Griffin was actually an extremely well rounded musician. As a student at DuSable High School under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, Griffin learned all the reeds, including oboe and English horn. He learned to play classical music, wind band, and marching band repertoire in addition to jazz. It’s a kind of education not always offered today to students who study jazz at the university level, unless they start in the classical field and then move over.
From the very first notes of Blues for Gonzi, we’re in the eye of a musical hurricane. Griffin never quite achieved the fame or popularity with the general public of Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, saxists who started in hard bop but expanded their style, but he was well known to the coterie of serious jazz listeners and musicians. To put it bluntly, Griffin was brilliant. The only real difference between his playing and that of Rollins or Coltrane was his not reaching “on beyond zebra” for harmonic and rhythmic effects that, sometimes brilliant, could also sometimes border on the bizarre. He stayed within himself, and that suited him and his listeners just fine.
I won’t go into detail on the excellences of each track, but would like to point out how together this group is. Though comprised of jazz all-stars, his quartet functions as a completely integrated unit. Even when Griffin takes center stage, his rhythm section is with him every inch of the way, anticipating and brilliantly accompanying his key and tempo changes. Nor does it sound as if Griffin is dragging them along for the ride; they simply know each other’s playing so well that the communion they achieve is almost psychic. Pianist Matthews, of course, is given more solo room than bassist Drummond, but that really doesn’t matter. Drummond’s bass creates superbly crafted counterpoint that any student of that subject would be privileged to have written in their music-theory class, and he delivers that counterpoint with verve and excitement.
Richie Cole, a different kind of tenor saxist, has a much lighter tone than Griffin’s dark, thick, meaty one. Indeed, there are times when Cole could be mistaken for playing alto rather than tenor, as his style is a direct offshoot of Parker’s without copying it. Known as “the wild man,” Cole is one of the most exuberant and swinging of all white saxists. This New York concert may very well have been that city’s introduction to Filipino pianist Bobby Enriquez, nicknamed “the madman.” The soubriquet is well chosen. Enriquez was a pianist who had the technique and almost as brilliant a musical mind as his idol, Art Tatum, except that Enriquez enhanced his lightning-fast cascades of notes with side-hand karate chops to the keyboard. (No, I’m not kidding. Watch this video and see for yourself.) I was privileged to see Enriquez give a solo concert in 1985, and can attest that he was just as good alone as he was in a group.
It would have been quite easy, not to say enticing, for two such dominant musical personalities as Cole and Enriquez to monopolize solo space, as the Marsalis brothers did with Art Blakey’s 1982 Jazz Messengers. That they do not is a tribute to Cole’s insistence that his groups function as an ensemble and not a collection of stars. Bruce Forman’s guitar-playing, though a little too reverberant for my taste (too much like a rock guitarist), is also among the highlights of this set, particularly on Hi Fly. Punishment Blues is an original novelty number by Cole, starting with the theme from “Dragnet” and moving into some truly wild playing. It was this blend of humor, showmanship, and seriously great improvising that stamped this edition of Cole’s group with greatness.
With two such outstanding sets presented back-to-back, it would be remiss of me not to recommend this DVD highly to anyone who wants to know where slightly more mainstream jazz was in the early 1980s. It also, subtly, underscores the difference between the exuberance of these groups and the relatively sedate playing of Wynton Marsalis’s bands.