Johnny Griffin Quartet

Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, April 28

Ritual Trio With David Murray

HotHouse, April 27

Jazz drummers talk back. In other musical styles the drummer’s role is important but fundamentally different than in jazz. A great rock or R & B drummer–like the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts or the Hi Rhythm Section’s Howard Grimes–will maintain a steady groove, providing the singer or lead instrumentalist with a solid rhythmic foundation, but won’t engage him in dialogue. A jazz drummer, though, will mix it up with a horn player, retorting, cajoling, and provoking. The heart of jazz–the source of its distinctive piquancy and volatility–lies in the interplay between horn players and drummers. And as demonstrated in recent concerts by the Johnny Griffin Quartet and the Ritual Trio with guest artist David Murray, the quality of a jazz performance is often determined by the quality of that interplay.

The interaction between Griffin–a tenor saxophonist who grew up in Chicago, has lived in Europe for decades, and returns to the Jazz Showcase annually during the week of his birthday (this being his 67th)–and his longtime drummer Kenny Washington was evident to the eye as well as the ear. Washington wasn’t positioned directly behind Griffin, as is usually the case in a rock or blues concert, but at a 45-degree angle and just a few feet away. Rather than facing forward while playing, Griffin usually turned slightly, with his left ear toward his drummer. And Washington, instead of looking at Griffin, tilted his head away so that his right ear faced him.

The saxophonist and drummer played together, not merely simultaneously, throughout. Reflecting Griffin’s long and varied career, the music ranged widely, from swaggering blues (his own “The JAMFS Are Coming”) to wistful ballads (Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring”) to feverish bebop (Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning”). The interplay between the musicians was established in the first number, the Cole Porter standard “Just One of Those Things,” which they performed at a demonic tempo after a playfully subversive introduction in which Griffin pledged to “destroy” it. His solo–a mix of agitated lines, sustained notes, slashing figures, and clenched bleats–called to mind the experience of riding in a car on a foggy night down a winding country road with a driver who’s never taken that particular route before but nevertheless presses down on the gas as hard as he can. That reckless abandon–a quality too often lacking in younger jazz musicians–was offset by exquisite control: every turn was executed with pinpoint precision, leaving the listener dazed but exhilarated. Washington displayed that same combination of abandon and control, pushing the beat and the saxophonist relentlessly, adding skittering, off-center accents as retorts, and at times–on some of the wildest curves–suspending time altogether with a flurried pop-pop-pop.

Such interplay between a horn player and a drummer is rarely captured effectively on recordings. The drums are a fiendishly difficult instrument to record. The orchestral range of tones and colors displayed in live performance by a player like Washington–ranging from the airy ding of the cymbal to the heartbeatlike buhm of the bass drum, from the sharp thwack of the snare drum to the round plop of the tom-tom to the smooth shoop of the hi-hat–eludes the grasp of technology. Beyond that there’s the problem of balance among the drums’ various voices: recordings tend to brighten the instrument, magnifying the cymbals, for example, at the expense of the snare drum. And then there’s the problem of balance among instruments: recordings tend either to bring the drums too far forward, so that the cymbals seem to intrude on the horns, or push them too far back, so that it sounds as though they were being played from behind a curtain. All of this is not merely a matter of technical interest. The combination of the difficulties in recording this instrument and the predominance of recordings over live performance has arguably distorted the experience of jazz, diminishing the role of the drums and, correspondingly, of the interplay between horn players and drummers.

The quality of the interplay between drummer Kahil El’Zabar, the leader of the Ritual Trio and a longtime member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and his two tenor saxophonists for this performance–fellow AACM member Ari Brown and guest David Murray–was more uneven. Performing a mix of old and new pieces (including Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and John Coltrane’s “Miles’ Mode”) before a standing-room-only crowd, the group both dazzled and frustrated–often at the same time. Many of the problems with their performance, which was recorded for a forthcoming CD on Delmark, a Chicago-based label, related to the contributions of Murray, the 40-year-old saxophonist, composer, and bandleader who has made so many recordings that it would take a computer to keep track of them. Murray began performing as a child with a family gospel group. He’s played with everyone from the cutting-edge World Saxophone Quartet (of which he’s an original member) to the Grateful Dead (whose newsletter dubbed him the “Jimi Hendrix of the tenor saxophone”) and was tagged by the late Martin Williams, perhaps the most widely esteemed and influential critic in jazz, as the likely successor to tenor saxophone giant Sonny Rollins.

As with Griffin and Washington, the nature of the interaction between El’Zabar and the two saxophonists was evident from their opening number, the medium-tempo “Papa’s Bounce.” El’Zabar, who spent most of the night on the trap drums, began this piece with a repeated pattern on an earth drum (a congalike cylinder that’s played with the hands); bassist Malachi Favors then joined in with a funky repeated riff, and the two saxophonists began playing the piece’s melody line in unison. Murray took the first solo, turning the piece’s simple melody on its head harmonically, then launching abruptly into an extended series of squeals that was followed by a torrent of descending notes. The problem with this solo (and with much of Murray’s playing throughout the night) was that it was often exciting but seldom moving. A player of stunning virtuosity, Murray often proceeded in a seemingly random manner, as though the various parts of a solo were interchangeable. And his solos often suffered from the musical equivalent of premature ejaculation, climaxing too quickly. Whereas Griffin’s bleats meant something because of what had preceded them, Murray’s often seemed to come out of nowhere. Murray’s approach left El’Zabar with basically two options: repeating essentially the same patterns while Murray soloed or mimicking Murray’s bursts of intensity with volcanic flurries on the cymbals and snare drum. Neither role involved genuine give-and-take.

The interplay between El’Zabar and Brown was more satisfying. At the conclusion of Murray’s solo on “Papa’s Bounce” Brown wisely shifted the dynamics, beginning his solo with a tone that was intimate, yearning, and meditative. His playing emerged from rather than rode over the rhythmic spaces created by El’Zabar. He built his solo phrase by phrase, mining each one fully before moving on to the next. His restraint drew out El’Zabar, who began varying his patterns and playing off the saxophonist’s phrases. Gradually Brown increased his intensity, employing a harsher tone and busier lines. El’Zabar set off this gathering storm with buoyancy, lightness, and suppleness. After reaching a moving and logical climax Brown’s solo tapered off gracefully.

As has often been noted, most recently by New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous, the worlds of jazz and sport have much in common. The difference between Murray’s and Brown’s playing was like that between a brilliant one-on-one basketball player and a player who can not only shoot but pass and move without the ball. Murray’s playing was often spectacular, but he left his fellow players–as well as the listeners–in the role of awestruck spectators rather than engaged participants. Even with the world’s greatest one-on-one player, the Bulls didn’t achieve success until he learned how to play as part of a team.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Debra E. Levie; Craig Volpe.