WBGO Radar

Johnny Griffith: Dance With The Lady

johnny griffith's CD Dance With The Lady

Canada is a place where chops can grow - sometimes to epic proportions. A case in point is Toronto saxophonist Johnny Griffith, whose CD Dance With The Lady reveals an exciting musical imagination with skills to spare.

While his chops are remarkable, Griffith plays first from his heart, not his head. The result is - rarity of rarities - an album of original compositions that swings from start to finish.

The disc features New York trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and Griffith’s admirable Toronto band of Adrean Farrugia on piano, Jon Maharaj on bass and Ethan Ardelli on drums. It was recorded live over two days in Toronto this August.

The pairing of Griffith and Pelt immediately makes sense to the ear, as they are well matched in their versatility and the confidence they project.

These affinities are apparent from the album’s first track, “The Zissou Experiment.”  Griffith moves with ease through the lexicon of contemporary saxophone styles. But like Pelt, he never sacrifices melody or phrasing.

“Princess Aura Goes to Phrygia” takes its name not from the “Gypsy” scale favored by Gil Evans and other jazz composers, but from one of Griffith’s favorite movies – Flash Gordon. Farrugia stands out here for his taste and sense of adventure at the keyboard.

“The Kuleshascope” may be the most eminently listenable twelve-tone composition ever written. Ardelli contributes hairpin turns on drums, which Pelt navigates with ease. “The Mile Walk” recalls the sound of John Coltrane with the Miles Davis Quintet.

Griffith says “Cinders” was inspired by Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella. For me it evokes, for reasons I can’t quite explain, Bix Beiderbecke’s “In A Mist.”

Throughout, Griffith plays straight-ahead with confidence and a warm, engaging tone on both alto and tenor – on this disc, he doesn’t reveal his equally formidable skills on flute and the bass clarinet, which he sometimes plays simultaneously with the tenor, a la Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

To hear those, you’ll have to check out some of Griffith’s other projects – The Griffith Hiltz Trio, a Bad Plus-y ensemble, and the jazz-influenced live hip-hop band Pocket Dwellers. Both groups have earned multiple awards, including nominations for the Grand Prix du Jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival and Juno awards, Canada’s homegrown version of the Grammys.

Perhaps it’s Griffith’s experiences with these groups that have helped him hone the remarkable ease we hear on Dance With The Lady. He has played countless dance halls and stadiums with groups like The Roots, the Wailers and Fishbone. Or maybe it’s Humber College in Toronto, home to Canada’s premier jazz education program, where Griffith was a student and now teaches. Or perhaps it was a cabin somewhere in the wilds of the his native Manitoba.

Wherever his woodshed is, Griffith found it, and has put in time and a half to become a talent worth paying attention to, and we can hope this album is the first of many fruits to come.

Dance With The Lady will be released internationally December 2.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content manager

 

Check out more WBGO Radar...