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 known.
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.
To 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 (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.
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.