Johnny Griffin | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Johnny Griffin


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His boundless energy after five decades in jazz may amaze you, but if you've listened to him on disc, tenor saxist Johnny Griffin won't surprise you. Over his lengthy career (he turns 71 on Saturday) his recordings have captured every nuance of his distinctive style: the breakneck legerdemain, the hairpin turns of his speediest solos, the reedy soulfulness that permeates his verbose, theatrical ballads. Griffin was one of three important tenor men Thelonious Monk took under his wing in the 1950s, and like the others--Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane--he focused the structure and purpose of his playing during his monastic sojourn. But he didn't emerge transformed the way Rollins and Coltrane did, mostly because he arrived at Monk's door more fully developed: almost 30 at the time, he'd been playing professionally since his teens, when he hit the road with Lionel Hampton's band. The man in town this weekend is only slightly less adventurous, and probably just as exciting, as the young saxophonist on those 1958 recordings with Monk--a testament not only to Griffin's early maturity but to his staying power. As a contemporary of his once pointed out to me, Griffin can't be pigeonholed as a bebop saxist. He certainly keeps one foot in that camp, with his leapfrogging lines, his vivid harmonic imagination, and the speed at which he can cogently improvise. But his roots reach back to the hot, nail-on-the-head rhythms of the great swing musicians; he updates that idiom, of course, but never settles into bop's insouciant, behind-the-beat cool. Griffin's solos don't back down; they're still as lionhearted as the mythical creature that shares his name. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Redfern.

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