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Artist: Johnny Griffin
Performance date: March 15, 2005
Publication: New York Times

Making a Coat of Many Colors, Stitched by a Single Tenor Sax


Published: March 17, 2005

The tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin is one of those elite older jazz players who contain so much of what makes the music great - rhythm, soul, blues, humor, delight, maturity, sophistication, world-weariness. He has a sound and a presence, and everything he does is interesting, even moving and talking and introducing his band members.

Mr. Griffin lives in southwest France, near the Pyrenees, and he hasn't played in New York clubs since 2001 because of a stroke and heart trouble. He used to be known for speed and articulation, in Chicago and New York, before he left for Europe in the early 1960's; at 76, his playing has edged back from the super-fast tempos that he exulted in as a younger man. But now there's perhaps more to enjoy, and at the Blue Note on Tuesday night-the first of a two-night stand - he immediately established a canny method of reconnecting with his audience. The Blue Note is a fairly large club, and he insisted on talking without a microphone. The entire club fell silent every time he drew a breath to speak, and that made people pay closer attention to his playing.

In a quartet with the musicians that accompany him when he comes to New York - the pianist Michael Weiss, the bassist John Webber and the drummer Kenny Washington - Mr. Griffin sounded as if he were looking for fresh phrases. He often found them, in flowing arpeggios and gently eccentric gestural playing. His fallbacks, once in a while, were bebop lines, but more often a relaxed version of old rhythm-and-blues honking and honeydripping, with all of that style's magnificent knowingness and satire. (Mr. Griffin played in the 1940's under the Chicago bandleader Joe Morris, before bebop realigned jazz.) It's a mode of playing that is almost extinct, but combined with Mr. Griffin's harmonic sophistication it sounds as modern as anything.

With the band playing beautifully behind him, he played a set like many he has played before, including the standards "Just Friends" and "If I Should Lose You"; a few originals, one fast ("Hot Sake," based on "What Is This Thing Called Love"), one slow ("When We Were One"); and, at the end, a blues, full of easy, grace, repeating lines for emphasis. The set had tentative moments, but he ended fully on his feet, and it was as good a demonstration of blues phrasing as can be heard in jazz.


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