Frank Griffith Big Band
(The Bull’s Head in Barnes, June 8th 2012. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
The late Michael Garrick’s big band was a regular feature at the Bull’s Head and since his passing it has felt as if a particular gap has needed to be filled. But now a new, first rate big band is gracing the stage in Barnes, and playing polished and memorable music with its stellar cast of players under the highly capable leadership of Frank Griffith.
Riding on the momentum of their just-released (and excellent) CD, Holland Park Non-Stop (Hep 2095), the band was substantially the same line up as on the disc but with the addition of Martin Shaw on trumpet. It consisted here of 17 players: piano, drums and bass plus four trumpets, four trombones and six saxophones including Frank himself (two alto, three tenor, one baritone).
The sort of delights on offer from this crack outfit became apparent early on with the short but sweet ‘Send for Henry’, a Johnny Keating composition written for Ted Heath’s big band, dedicated to the late Henry Mackenzie, a legendary saxophonist and clarinetist who played with everyone from Henry Mancini to the Beatles.
This was followed by an Oliver Nelson composition ‘Black Brown and Beautiful’ featuring Sam Mayne on alto in a gorgeous, lyrical solo floating over the big band textures of the brass and reeds. Bob Sydor, on tenor, had played with Oliver Nelson on the album Swiss Suite. And Sam Mayne was one of the heroes of a recent Tony Kinsey gig — indeed Tony was here in the audience.
‘Antonia’ was a Frank Griffith original from the CD featuring the skilfull Freddie Gavita on trumpet and proved an exemplary showcase for the soloist. It was followed by the old traditional song ‘Frankie and Johnny’. Frank introduced this as “Featuring our own Frankie and Johnny — Bob Sydor and Karen Sharp.” The two tenor players traded energetically back and forth, Sydor supple and eloquent, Sharp simultaneously swinging and boppish — and wickedly rhythmic. The sweet and sour unison playing from the brass and reeds that accompanied them was reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s sextet of the Orchestra USA playing Kurt Weill — it had the same modernist edge. This modernist edge continued to be felt on ‘Watch What Happens’ arranged by Richard Lieb. “Bossa till you drop,” commented Frank Griffith as the band dug in. The outstanding solos included muted trumpet by Martin Shaw and the leader’s own delicately beautiful, nimble clarinet, which was like a tingling scalp massage.
‘These Foolish Things’ was a feature for Frank Griffith on sax. His playing was beautiful and assured, providing luxurious contours — bebop satin and silk. This ravishing solo only grew more beautiful when the unison brass and sax sections swelled under it. It was astonishing and transcendent.
Highlights of the second half of the gig included Neal Hefti’s ‘The Kid from Red Bank’ played in immaculate Basie style with great unison sax and terrific piano from John Turville. It did full justice to the Count’s classic, inducing toe tapping and hip swinging in the listeners.
Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn’s ‘Teach Me Tonight’ presented a memorable solo from Bob Sydor on tenor: measured, reflective and nuanced, fondly sweet. ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, arranged by Neil Richardson of the BBC Big Band, provided a luscious trombone solo from Chris Gower and great brass and reed section playing that offered up shimmering veils of music.
‘In a Mellow Tone’, arranged by Tommy Newsom was open and rocking with an articulate solo by Martin Shaw, while the Duke Ellington songbook also supplied Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Rain Check’, which did full justice to the original here with Bob Sydor on clarinet. And, as a memorable night was winding down, we had a Frank Griffith original, ‘Take the Money and Run’ with Richard Shepherd on baritone sax and soft, buoyant, sturdy soloing from Griffith while John Turville again distinguished himself on piano.
But in a way it seems wrong to single out soloists in a band where every player is delivering such excellent music. The Frank Griffith Big Band will return to the Bull’s Head for the London Jazz Festival on November 14th. Book your seats now. And while you’re waiting, get hold of that CD.
Mr Griffith also has an earlier New York Sextet project with Tom Harrell on CD: The Suspect.
His big band arranging is as sophisticated as anything I have heard from Thad Jones or Johnny Mandel while his saxophone playing is lush, soulful and melodic.
Tina May guests on four tracks on the excellent Holland Park Non Stop