Monday, November 4, 2013

Ad-Lib#5: Two Faces of Johnny Griffin

© photograph: Yukio Ichikawa
The line-up on some of the old 78 rpm records are truly amazing. For instance, teaming up Johnny Griffin, Elmo Hope, Percy Heath and Philly Joe Jones on one single record may sound like a fantasy modern group, but in reality it happened in the late 1940s, though the encounter is not as jazzy as one expects.

The name of Joe Morris (1922-58) hardly rings a bell today. However, those familiar with the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and Dizzy Gillespie will recognize this trumpet player who after some busy years in big bands led his own usually loud combos, playing rhythm and blues charts. It is in one of these small combos that the little giant of tenor sax, Johnny Griffin, is presented at the age of 19.

Did Griffin pick up something from his demanded rough, bluesy, riff-based performance here for his future's distinctive style? It's hard to think he didn't.

Tia Juana

Thirty years on, we see Mr. Griffin in another unusual recording environment, this time for the soundtrack of a film made by the celebrated French filmmaker, Bertrand Tavernier.

The sweaty feeling of the 78 is replaced with an European elegance. While both are common emotions evoked in the wide spectrum of jazz and one of the reasons why this music, by and large, didn't become vulgar or classy.

Tavernier who is also a great jazz fan (he directed Round Midnight in 1986) made Des Enfants Gâtés as his fourth feature in 1977.

As other examples in the favorite French cinema's sub-genre of "dying Paris," Des Enfants Gâtés deals with the story of old Paris on the wane, and the erection of the grim-looking residential complexes on the outskirts of the city (see design of the LP). From a sheer jazz point of view, aside from a scene in which the leading male characters talk about jazz, the main attraction is Philippe Sarde's soundtrack for which Johnny Griffin plays saxophone.

It is another example of how Griffin perfectly suits different musical and cultural requirements and each time creates something worthy of its context.

the joke
And of course there is the inside joke, the jazz conversation I mentioned earlier, which happens between the protagonist Michel Piccoli (who, in the story, is a filmmaker and actually is Tavernier's alter ego) and the screenwriter Michel Aumont in which Aumont gives a Sonny Rollins LP to Piccoli, claiming that he has stolen it from his wife. He complains that "women don't dig jazz," and that for women the sound of Bird is "too squeaky." A funny, nevertheless sexist remark from a character who is consciously portrayed as a male chauvinist petit bourgeois. I mentioned this scene because this week (or maybe next, depending on my other commitments) I want to blog (probably daily and posting videos) on Women and Jazz, therefore having my share of fight against the myth of the gender who "don't dig jazz!"

Now the music: the quintet who have performed Des Enfants Gâtés' soundtrack is Johnny Griffin (ts), John Surman (soprano sax), Jean-Pierre Mas (p), Barry Guy and François Rabbath (both bass). My selected piece is called Le Petit Couteau.

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