Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

“Ow!”
Reel to Real RTR 003

Before the time when reed explorers like John Coltrane, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker and Albert Ayler redefined the parameters of the tenor saxophone solo and a little after simple honkers had cheapened the pumping sax showcase into a mere rock’n’roll break, there still existed a distinctive breed of stylists whose modern mainstream playing was sophisticated without being cloying and exciting without excess. Challenged, these sax players could blow off the roof with highly rhythmic excitement, but were so studied in their advanced reed techniques that they unknowingly paved the way for free-form explorations. A favored forum for them was the so-called tenor battle, and OW! presents a live showcase from two of that idiom’s most accomplished practitioners: Johnny Griffin (1928-2008) and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (1922-1986).

Recorded at Seattle’s Penthouse club in mid-1962, at a cusp of the time when the Rock-oriented music business and the unceasing challenge of the Avant-garde would soon create an almost insurmountable dichotomy between creativity and crowd-pleasing, Jaws & Griff’s working quintet of the day easily demonstrated how at that time both sides of the equation could be satisfied without compromise. They had help of course. Horace Parlan (1931-2017) had already apprenticed with Charles Mingus by this time. Drummer Art Taylor (1929- 1995), had recorded with everyone from Gene Ammons to John Coltrans; and the lesser known bassist Buddy Catlett had put in time with Quincy Jones and Count Basie among others.

Meanwhile Griffin, who had been part of Monk’s quartet as well as Lionel Hampton near-R&B big band and Davis, who was a pioneering bebopper as well as an organ combo leader, knew instinctively how to extend the music to a certain point while never losing sight of the tradition. So while the first hectoring reed note heard alongside the radio announcer’s smooth introduction could have come from an aggressive New Thing session, some of the gentler improvisations on the standards and ballads that make up much of the date wouldn’t have frightened any Basie or Duke Ellington fan in the audience. As a bonus distinctive tunes from each of those big band’s books are also featured.

As easily as the two leaders could approach any tune at double-quick time, they never lost a sense of swing. When the program slows down, such as during Griffin’s version of “Sophisticated Lady”, the perform sticks to a groove as well as displaying the tenorist’s gorgeous romanticism. That’s not all either. At faster tempos Griffin’s musical mind works so quickly that, for instance, while racing through the title tune, he manages to work in brief quotes from “Pannonica” and “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and on other pieces throughout sheets of sound are prominent. Meanwhile Davis, who was the more raucous of the two soloists, lets loose with collection of R&B-like honks and snorts during “Blue Lou”, with Parlan’s gospelish chords expanding the treatment as the pianist does throughout the session. Taylor’s faultless fills are never less than measured and Catlett completes the set by outputting the proper rhythmic clout.

Like many of the black and white features of the 1950s and 1960s which at the time seemed commonplace, but are now recognized as quality film-making, Ow! was probably thought of as just another club date. But in retrospect almost 60 years after it was reco4rded the originality and ease in their playing and improvising by all members of this working quintet makes this session doubly valuable. Recognize it as a fine instance of how to create a high quality Jazz date.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Intermission Riff 2. Blues Up and Down 3. Ow! 4. Bahia 5. Blue Lou 6. Second Balcony Jump 7. How Am I To Know? 8. Sophisticated Lady 9. Tickle Toe 10. Intermission Riff

Personnel: Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (tenor saxophones); Horace Parlan (piano); Buddy Catlett (bass) and Art Taylor (drums)