Discovering the Johnny Griffith Quintet

Johnny Griffith Quintet - The Lion, Camel & Child - Cover Art

THE LION, CAMEL & CHILD / GRIFFITH: The Lion, Camel & Child. Narcomedusae. Strawberry Qwik. Amarone. For a Derailed Painter. Deliciously Ambiguous. The Corridor. Last Say / Johnny Griffith, t-sax; Jeremy Pelt, tpt; Adrean Farrugia, pno; Jon Maharaj, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / GB Records 180109

On this CD, Canadian tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffith claims to have been inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses. He states that “Metamorphoses is concerned with what propels each new phase of human growth, so it seemed fitting to frame this as a suite – each track individual unto itself, yet when listened to as a whole representing the arc of the personal struggle to know more and be more.”The first four tracks on the album, titled “The Lion,” “The Camel,” “Cadenza” and “The Child,” form an 18 ½ -minute suite.

Yet in just listening to the music, without knowing the program behind it, one hears interesting, abstract, modern compositions that seem to have very few specific pictorial or philosophic allusions. This is certainly not a bad thing; Griffiths writes good jazz pieces, and his tubular sax tone is complemented by a good sense of construction in his solos, but I still have a problem hearing any visual or philosophic allusions in this music. And Griffiths’ band is clearly a very fine one. In addition to the leader, I was particularly impressed by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, pianist Adrean Farrugia and drummer Ethan Ardelli, all of whom are explosive, interesting performers. The title of the album could just as well have been something generic like Good Jazz and it would have suited me just fine.

That being said, in “The Camel” Griffiths does use a sort of medium-tempo loping beat that somewhat simulates the steady clop of a camel, although there’s quite a bit of modern jazz that now uses such rhythms, inspired to some degree by the pioneering jazz-Arabian music of Rabih Abou-Khalil. “Cadenza” is an even slower piece, played a cappella by the leader on tenor. Towards the end he picks up the tempo, which leads into the rousing finale. Pelt plays a crackling solo on this one.

The strangely-titled Narcomedusae begins very slowly, introduced by Jon Maharaj’s pizzicato bass and Darrugia’s piano, before moving into a fairly up tempo in a quirky meter with Pelt’s trumpet leading the charge. We then get an excellent series of solos, each of which feed off each other, creating a sort of continuity throughout the piece. By contrast, Strawberry Qwik is a fairly straightahead fast bop-style piece with some irregular meter in the bridge of each chorus. The leader dominates this one on tenor, although Pelt has a crackling, Thad Jones-like solo as well.

Amarone is a ballad, but an interesting one with unusual yet subtle chord changes and a discursive melodic line. Maharaj gets a solo on this one, nice if not outstanding, while Griffith is his usual superb self. Pelt has a tasteful muted spot here as well. For a Derailed Painter is a thoroughly straightforward bop piece, beautifully played.

Deliciously Ambiguous uses a lyrical yet irregular melodic pattern to both entice and slightly baffle the listener. The solos are solid but not as original as some others on this disc. The Corridor uses a slightly funky, irregular intro before moving into a more conventional 4 at a medium-uptempo. This one is subtle interesting in its construction, and both Pelt’s and Griffith’s solos are quite fine. The closing number, Last Say, begins slowly with solo bass introduction before the rhythm section enters, following which we hear Pelt’s muted trumpet with Griffith’s tenor filling in nicely. There are some interesting meter shifts in the middle section as well. Towards the end, the meter becomes particularly complex in the background while the soloists seem to be maintaining a regular 4 pulse.

This is clearly a very fine jazz album, with good playing all round and particularly fine solos from the leader, trumpeter and pianist.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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