An recently unearthed live collection from 1962 captures sax greats Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in full head cutting mode
Artist: Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
Album: Ow! Live at the Penthouse
Label: Reel to Real
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Jazz is usually considered serious music for serious people, but anyone who’s even a bit familiar with the genre knows it’s supposed to be fun.
One of its most popular gimmicks is the head-cutting contest. The saxophone battle became a staple of hard bop for a time, and no one embodied this crowd-pleasing style more than the so-called Tough Tenors. Nine LPs from Thelonious Monk sideman Johnny Griffin and Count Basie Orchestra member Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis attested to its popularity. Most of these were concert albums, of course – how else would the energy hit the top without a live audience spurring each warrior on? Ow! Live at the Penthouse captures a set from this dynamic duo, recorded at Seattle’s famed Penthouse club – a source of many classic performances over the decades – in 1962.
Following a radio show introduction, the record explodes right out of the gate with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt’s “Blues Up and Down,” a high speed chase down the jazz highway. Both men hit their horns full force, racing through their riffs at almost blinding speed. They’re not the only ones whose virtuosity is on display, however – pianist Horace Parlan is right there with them, contributing his own firebreather of a solo, and the rhythm section of Buddy Catlett (bass) and Art Taylor (drums) has no problem keeping the engine running hot. The quintet digs into the bebop bag for Dizzy Gillespie’s title track, boasting a great unison horn riff and some serious swing from the rhythm section – a direction that particularly flatters Griffin’s liquid soloing style.
The duo lets the energy level calm for “Bahia,” the John Coltrane-associated Ary Barrows tune that anchored one of the master’s mid-sixties compilation albums. Parlan’s sweet comping and the rhythmeers’ finger-popping swing set up a foundation that allows the tenors to burn hot and blow cool, as well as allowing anyone listening to catch a breath. The bits of Indian-inspired melody also spike the track with an exotica that’s beyond bebop. It’s a track that brings out the best of all concerned. Naturally, after that brilliant interlude, it’s time to crank up the voltage once again, and “Blue Lou” delivers. The Irving Mills-Edgar Sampson tune lets Griffin, David and Parlan just plain rip, with Catlett and Taylor deftly keeping up.
The horn players start a big band trilogy of sorts with “Second Balcony Jump,” a Billy Eckstine tune that slides right into the frisky hard bop idiom, while still retaining its show band roots. One could easily imagine a large horn section blasting out the main riff, but Davis and Griffin’s solo trade-offs keep the energy racing just fine. The band then once again chills out with Duke Ellington’s classic “Sophisticated Lady,” one of the most accessible, beautiful melodies in jazz, with buttery smooth sax solos and an overtly romantic vibe. The group ends its big band triad with a Count Basie staple, the sprightly “Tickle Toe.” While not quite the face melter that “Blue Lou” and “Blues Up and Down” are, it’s still a jolt on par of three extra-strong cups of coffee on a cold day, and lets the Tough Tenors take us out with memorable lead breaks.
Ow! Live at the Penthouse isn’t a major artistic statement, but it’s not meant to be. The performance radiates the joy of two great musicians having a good time playing together, and that joy should easily spread to anyone in hearing range. Jazz is, after all, fun.
AUDIO: Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis perform “Second Balcony Jump” at The Penthouse in Seattle