Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin demonstrated to a crowded One Step Down last night that America's loss has been Europe's gain, as he opened with a set of brilliant and emotionally invigorating straight-ahead jazz.
Griffin, who has lived in Europe for two decades and has made only infrequent visits to home, eased into the opening, medium-tempo Dave Brubeck tune with a deceptively clean alto high-tone but soon turned gritty and gutsy. "Just Friends" was vintage Griffin, notes pouring out of his horn in torrents, and the concluding number was at an even faster clip. In between was Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," delivered with husky warmth and a presence that almost palpably embraced the listener. On all four tunes Griffin built imposing edifices of improvisation, never repeating himself despite the lengthy solos and, on several pieces, the unflagging pace.
Griffin was given excellent support by a tight rhythm section consisting of pianist Ronnie Mathews, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Kenny Washington. Mathews' tinkling runs could often be heard behind the leaders' close-packed lines and his solos were full of crushed chords and motifs that surfaced again and again. Lundy's throbbing bass and Washington's dynamic drums supplied unrelenting heat to the proceedings.
The quartet performs again this evening.