Chico Freeman regards the nine tunes on "Tradition in Transition" as "one composition, a concept, a feeling." Chances are, fellow saxophonist Johnny Griffin would say much the same about his latest recording, "To The Ladies," even if in his case the underlying concept is more conventional and time-honored. While Freeman's album offers an ambitious, evocative and often striking summation of post-bop jazz, Griffin's is mostly cozy, romantic, soft-lit balladry.
"Tradition" opens with a nice surprise: drummer Jack DeJohnette on piano, outlining Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-ing" with Monk's own spare metallic touch. The ensemble not only captures Monk's melodic angularity and rhythmic swagger, but the marching cadences of saxophone (Freeman) and trumpet (Wallace Roney) are also perfectly attuned to Monk's harmonic iconoclasm.
The album proceeds to look at jazz from both sides -- inside and out. "Free Association" is aptly titled, feisty yet structured, benefiting, as do so many of these tunes, from Freeman's long-time relationship with bassist Cecil McBee. "Talkin' Trash," another of the album's highlights, finds Freeman's bass clarinet and Roney's muted trumpet paying homage to Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. Composer Sam Rivers is also recalled on the album.
But most impressive are the imaginative and colorful ensemble performances. Pianist Clyde Criner and drummer Billy Hart complete the group that makes "Tradition" the seamless listening experience Freeman had in mind.
While Freeman shows an affinity for Monk's music, Griffin actually played with Monk in the '50s, and the saxophonist's hard-boppish tone and colossal drive are still a joy to witness. "To the Ladies" requires a softer touch, however. Griffin rises to the occasion with three lovely portraits on side one: his own "Miriam," bassist Ray Drummond's "Susanita," and pianist Ron Mathews' "Jean Marie." Griffin graces the first with waltzing lyricism, the second with Latin nonchalance and the last with characteristic vigor.
Unfortunately, the flip side is less impressive. Three tracks are devoted to Griffin's familiar "soft and furry" when one glimpse of the saxophonist stalking this Pink Panther-ish theme would suffice. Yet there are rewards: Always a witty and voluble player, Griffin tosses in several humorous, extraneous quotes during the final number, the album's only real honker, "Honey Bucket." ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS CHICO FREEMAN -- Tradition in Transition (Elektra-Musician 60163-1). JOHNNY GRIFFIN -- To the Ladies (Galaxy GXY5139). THE SHOWS CHICO FREEMAN -- Tuesday through October 31 at Charlie's Georgetown. JOHNNY GRIFFIN -- Friday and Saturday at One Step Down.