Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Parker’

The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a world of its own. So unique in jazz is Monk’s conception – both in composition and in improvisation  – that it has pretty much carved out a sub-genre of its own.

Because of its unique language, it has proven down the years a notoriously difficult book to play. Some of the greats have struggled with its quirks and almost Zen-like mind-games: the staggered rhythms, the displaced phrases, the lines that seemingly go nowhere, only to bob up from rabbit-hole a few bars later. John Coltrane and Monk’s long-time foil, Charlie Rouse come to mind, but not too many others.

To improvise over Monk’s compositions – even a deceptively traditional blues such as ‘Blue Monk’ – demands an understanding of his highly personal logic. To move within that successfully, while not losing your own voice, is the grail.


Sydney altoist, Michael Griffin has put together a tribute to Monk’s music based around an octet Monk toured in 1968. Griffin’s octet (a very Monk word I think; as ‘quintet’ is a very Miles word) is made up of some of our best and brightest. I was fortunate to catch them at Sydney’s swish Foundry 616.

After the opener, the sweetly melancholic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ played by the quartet of Griffin, Aaron Blakey on piano and the rhythm section of Tim Geldens (drums) and Tom Botting (bass), Griffin brought out the horns. With ‘Epistrophy’ I knew Griffin has done his homework. He explained, mid-set, that he had voiced the horns based on transcriptions of Monk’s piano voicings. So all the harmonic quirks were there – the clashed seconds and flat-seconds, the clusters, the more open intervals such as sixths and ninths (Monk seemed to favour either very close or very open harmony) – and the effect was, like Monk himself, akin to nothing else in jazz.

The band swung through a nice mix of faves and obscurities – the gonzoid mis-steps of ‘Evidence’, the fractured bop of ‘We See’, a wonderfully driving ‘Off Minor’, the horns – Griffin plus Michael Gordon and Louis Gordon (2 tenors), with Paul Weber on trombone and Tom Avenicos on trumpet – sounding huge on ‘Oska T’ and almost Stravinsky-like on closer ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.

The soloists all dug into the material with zest. Griffin’s smart selection of players afforded a range of approaches – Michael Gordon’s reflective tone and ideas, Louis (no relation) Gordon’s more biting attack, the sharp tone of Avenicos (a beautiful solo in ‘I Mean You’ where the piano laid out and the trumpet notes played contrapuntal tag with the rhythm section), Paul Weber’s blues-inflected voice-like lines.

Griffin’s Parker-classic alto flurries at times could seem at odds with the more open Monk ideas – serving as an illustration as to the immense differences between these two ‘architects’ of Bebop, Monk and Charlie Parker (as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, though I couldn’t say who was which). That said, his more lyrical side was the highpoint of ‘Blue Monk’, beautiful long blues lines and lovely phrase endings. But what the hell – he is one of our most exciting players whatever he does.

Someone who seemed to be having too much fun was pianist Aaron Blakey. And what jazz pianist wouldn’t with the Monk book? Resplendent in a wide Sonny Rollins hat, Blakely placed perfect ‘Monk bombs’ under the soloists and laid out for great gaps, shoring up the tension as Monk used to (though, I noted, without Monk’s sweet, abandoned dance movements around the piano). Blakey’s solos had an equal measure of his own sparkling ideas and some Zen-lunatic Monk humour. His solo-piano take on ‘Pannonica’ which opened the second set was another high-point in a night of highs.

If only to experience the wonderful, eternally-modern music of T S Monk you need to see this band. The fact that Michael Griffin has rendered such perfect arrangements, kept close and respectful to the spirit of Monk, and engaged such a killer ensemble makes it  an essential to any fan of Jazz.


Watching tenor colossus Dale Barlow tonight at Foundry 616 blowing alongside young altoist Michael Griffin, my mind went back to when I first saw Barlow play, way way back in the hazy day.

At an age not much older than Griffin is now, Barlow used to – in the words of my friend Greg L – “decapitate everyone in the room”. Of course, he continues to astound and his story, Jazz Messengers and all, is well know.

Griffin’s trajectory may not be as well documented yet, though for a younger player it is impressive. A semi-finalist at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Griffin is rising rapidly and capable of more than a little decapitation of his own.

griffin cannon3To see the two men working together, obviously digging each other’s playing was a thrill that pointed to this being one of the jazz gigs of the year for me. Griffin was overjoyed to be locking horns, literally, with the great Dale; Barlow, for his part, equally seemed to enjoy having the younger player’s sparkling alto nipping at his heels, pushing him into some hair-raising tenor work.

The night was sold as a Tribute to Cannonball and Coltrane, yet – rather than trot out the obvious – Griffin smartly used the first set to recreate the fire and brimstone of Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, the 1959 album which featured John Coltrane, as well as the Miles Davis Quintet at the time (sans Miles).

The tunes are exceptional hard-bop blowing vehicles and Griffin and Barlow rode straight through them. The band, The Jon Harkins Trio – Harkins on piano, Noel Mason bass and Tim Geldens drums – were high on the ride as well. Harkins’ piano was sometimes muscle, sometimes sinew; the tough physicality of his playing matching the attack of the horns.

Opener ‘Limehouse Blues’ was a burner with Griffin leaping into his solo and turning the heat up early. Barlow answered with equal fahrenheit. Pins dropped. Mouths gaped.

Griffin, after a short spoken welcome – he is a personable and easily funny host ­– took us through the ballad ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. Like Charlie Parker, Griffin is not only an eighth-note blazer, his ballad playing is lyrical and considered, his lines leaning into the beauty of the melody.

John Coltrane’s fractured and tricksy ‘Grand Central’ had Barlow blowing at his most electrifying. During his solo something clicked and his scything runs and leaps of melody lit us all up. Throughout the performance, the Harkins trio kept all of Coltrane’s little rhythmic shots in place under the solos without losing their collective minds.

The second set was given over to a selection of Adderley and Coltrane pieces – once again, not going for the obvious. All soloists navigated the cycling changes of Trane’s brilliant ‘Just Like Sonny’, Harkins in particular (to my ear) taking them out to their harmonic edges, just as Trane would have meant it to be.

‘Naima’, the only truly obvious choice of the night (how could you not?), was rendered un-obvious by its reading on the alto, rather than the tenor. Once again, Griffin took to the melody like a lover, teasing great beauty out of Naima’s dusky head.

griffin cannon1

Half-jokingly apologising to the Trio for the speed of the tune they were about to play, Griffin lit into ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in triple-time, summoning Parker’s fire and Cannon’s joy. His solo left more than a few of us decapitated, but in the sweetest way. Barlow’s solo reinforced his rep as one of our most thrilling and consistent tenors; his unmistakeable voice on the instrument, his ability to create at the highest level is something else.

The idea of the “perfect expression” of an artform – one where, like a shark or a Gibson Les Paul guitar, no further evolution is needed, or indeed, wanted – is a contentious one. Does the Blues need to go anywhere else?

Jazz, especially in its hard-bop, post-bop or, simply, acoustic form (I avoid the term ‘mainstream’ because it is meaningless) seems to have everything it needs.

Especially when one encounters players such as Griffin and Barlow and Harkins, the words ‘perfect expression’ seem to express its wild and sleek perfection just fine.


Published April 2105 on 




I have come late to the amazing playing of Sydney’s Michael Griffin.

Walking into an Andrew Dickerson Quintet gig off the street I was floored by this pale young man utterly flying on that most nimble of the jazz horns – the alto.

It seems I am just one in a long line of admirers, many notable, of Griffin’s mastery. US jazz legend Jimmy Heath has said “Michael Griffin is a fine saxophonist who loves Charlie Parker’s style as I did when I did,” and none other than Vincent Herring sums it all up well when he says “Michael Griffin has his feet firmly rooted in tradition and his ear leaning towards the future.”

The judges at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition obviously agreed, voting Griffin through to the semifinals.

pic by Aaron Blakely

pic by Aaron Blakely

Griffin’s debut album – Unexpected Greeting – showcases his startling playing. It also expressed so much of what is good and eternal about jazz – swing, verve, colour and that jumping joy that be-bop encapsulated so well.

As well as six Griffin originals – standouts are the hard driving opener “Hotel Hollywood” and the fleet and blazing “Flair” (reminiscent of Art Pepper’s frantic “Surf Ride”) – the Quintet covers four standards, with guest vocalist Briana Cowlishaw giving a lovely rendering of “Almost Like Being In Love” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” getting deep inside the wit and the urbane poetry of the lyric on each.

In march, for I asked Michael Griffin six questions about his art and his album. Here are his responses:

___________________________________________________________ Are you happy with the way your debut album, Unexpected Greeting turned out?

Michael Griffin: Yes I am very happy with the way my album has turned out. I feel there is something in it for everyone which is really what I want. I want to do what I love and I will never compromise what I love and the way I play but at the same time I always have a desire for everyone to enjoy my music. Hardcore jazz fans and also someone who doesn’t know much about jazz. I always hope that I can somehow appeal to everyone.

AJ: Your playing and compositions obviously reflect the influence of Charlie Parker and the hard bop players like Cannonball Adderley. Who is of particularly influence in shaping your conception?

MG: As mentioned I clearly am greatly influenced by Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, I also really love Sonny Rollins so much and of course Coltrane. So many, but those four are huge. I never get tired of learning from all of them. In more recent times I have also really enjoyed studying the work of Kenny Garrett and Vincent Herring. For me I love so much the modern bop players, especially Kenny and Vincent. One group I love is Vincent and Eric Alexander together, now those guys really cook. Hard swinging players which are constantly building and taking from previous influences to keep swinging hard and using the bop language as it develops.

AJ: What is it to you about hard-swinging, bop-flavoured jazz that you prefer over other forms of jazz?

MG: For me i enjoy virtually all jazz, however the jazz that speaks to me the most and gets me passionate is the hard swinging bop. So much in it. It’s an amazing language which to me is the absolute best part of jazz. Full of the blues, soul, the entire jazz language . When you have a band that’s cooking and really swinging and someone that is just locking in with that groove and burning full of ideas, to me nothing better. It’s the music I hear in my head all the time. To me I also I think there are so many great things in jazz however the best thing of all is that addictive swing feel. People lose sight of that and it’s the worst thing to lose. Out of all the things in jazz that is the most powerful thing in jazz which can hook in anybody. It’s never uncool to swing. But it has to be done well, When it’s done properly with energy and intensity and tight and full of passion it’s the most incredible ride that I always envisage myself being a part of.

AJ: Why did you choose to add the vocal tracks to the recording?

MG: Adding vocal tracks to the album was a decision I made, number one, because I thought it sounded good, it’s fun to mix things up. However also because people like vocals, they connect with them and I always want to give everyone something they can grab onto and get something out of what I’m doing. If I can give them something they can hold on to then they can stick with me for the rest of the journey, and are open to hearing other adventures i may introduce them to. I want to take everyone with me, not just the purists.

AJ: What are your thoughts on music in general and jazz in particular today?

MG: There is always good music being made, jazz will never die. Too many passionate people which always fall in love with this music and dedicate their lives to it. It’s not something which you just listen to every now and then. When you get bitten by the jazz bug it takes over your life. The only thing I will say is for people to try and make the same effort presenting jazz to audiences that other artists do presenting rock or pop etc. I love bands that make the effort to get people’s attention and keep them interested in jazz, There are a few out there, but I especially liked the Brassholes, Showing people that horn sections don’t just belong at band camp but could make today’s pop tunes sound awesome. It also makes jazz seem less foreign. A great idea and people loved what they were doing. We’re playing somewhat challenging music but let’s do all we can to invite people in and take them with us.

AJ: What is next for Michael Griffin?

MG: Next install for me is I’m looking to hopefully move to New York soon. I had an amazing time last time I was there and I want to live there, develop myself and get as good as I can and see how far up the world Jazz ladder I can climb.