Johnny Griffin's first set at the Ibex Club last night was something of a shakedown cruise. Beyond being a masterful tenor saxophonist, Griffin is also a perfectionist, and he spent considerable time last night making sure everything was just right.
He was obviously displeased with the sound coming from the stage monitors during his first piece, but that didn't detract from his performance. "Blues for Gonzy," a fiery tribute to the late Babs Gonzalez, burned with the same intensity that first brought Griffin to prominence in the '50s. He poured his heart into it, patching together a crazy quilt of borrowed melodies while moving in and out of the implacable rhythms forged by drummer Kenny Washington.
The ballads were equally impressive. The muscle and speed Griffin displayed earlier gave way to a warm and spacious tone. His phrasing was more deliberate, but no less passionate on Ellington's "A Prelude to a Kiss" and "Jean Marie."
Although the latter was written by pianist Ronnie Mathews in waltz time, it bore little resemblance to Strauss. Mathews and Washington engaged in thunderous exchanges before bassist Ray Drummond intervene with a resounding solo. Drummond also contributed a lovely samba that carved out some middle ground for Griffin's hard but human sound.
The Johnny Griffin Quartet appears thrugh Sunday at the Ibex Club.