Monday, February 03, 2020

CD Review: Johnny Griffin & Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis - Ow! Live at the Penthouse

Johnny Griffin & Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
Ow! Live at the Penthouse
(Reel to Real)

When two charismatic tenor saxophonists get together in a band, it doesn't have to follow that they'll engage in nothing but battles or cutting sessions. It can also result in a sharing of ideas, or as a way for peers to politely push each other to higher levels that bring out their individuality. That seems to have been the case in the quintet that put tenor saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis side by side during the early 1960s. Their discography speaks a great deal about their work ethic: in a mere two years the "Tough Tenors" cur nine albums, including four that captured them live at Minton's

Ow! is a newly released performance by their quintet live during two shows at Seattle's Penthouse Club in 1962. The rhythm section driving the music consists of Horace Parlan (piano), Buddy Catlett (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). No mere lo-fi historical document, the disc (which also appeared on vinyl on Record Store Day last fall) was recorded for broadcast live on radio station KING-FM. Taken from the original tapes that were in the possession Charlie Puzzo, Jr. - whose father ran the Penthouse - they feature sound akin to classic Village Vanguard recordings, down to the crystal clear sound of Catlett's walking bass lines.

Following a brief radio introduction and a chorus of "Intermission Riff," the quintet kicks into the jaunty "Blues Up and Down" (originally a Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt workout, but one that became the title track of a Griffin/Davis album too). The performance can give one the feeling of discovering some long-lost treasure, eliciting a "where have they been all my life" response. Davis takes the opening solo - which he does throughout, making it easy to distinguish him from Griffin - playing with a gruff tone that he uses to deliver a torrent of ideas, stopping on a dime, wailing and adding vibrato in appropriate places. If that wasn't enough, Griffin jumps in and spends most of the time playing double-time, like it was a simple undertaking. And the momentum doesn't wane a bit during the following 50 minutes.

No pianist sounded like Horace Parlan, due largely to the way he overcame the effects of polio, which robbed the strength from a few of his fingers. To compensate, Parlan developing his own unique voicings which add some bright spirit to this music, and evokes the feeling he delivered a few years earlier on Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um. The faster pieces, like the closing "Tickle Toe" are no problem for him.

Art Taylor comes across as a solid journeyman, driving the tenors. Buddy Catlett might not be as well-known and the other players, but he became a Seattle fixture after playing with Ben Webster (whose influence is felt in this set), Louis Armstrong and Quincy Jones. He delivers some solid work  that drives pieces like "Bahia."

Ow! represents a significant find for a few reasons. First is the obvious fact: The album unearths a top-notch performance that might have otherwise been lost to the ether. Co-released with Resonance Records, its elaborate packing includes detailed notes about the Griffin-Davis quintet's history, reminiscences by people involved with the live session and interviews with musicians who offer a greater perspective on the players. But it also serves as a motivation to track down the other recordings the Tough Tenors made at that time. Because we could use more.

Here's hoping that Reel to Real also has access to John Coltrane's mid-'60s performance at the Penthouse which came out a few years ago on a imported, probably illegitimate and definitely muddy sounding CD. 

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