In the 1970s ‘Captain Marvel’ comic books, the eponymous hero (an alien warrior from the Kree race who decided to protect the humans he was supposed to spy on) found himself in a strange situation of coexistence with an earthling, Rick Jones. When the teenager clanged his golden wristbands together (this was the ’70s, he could get away with such a fashion accessory), he would trade places with the superhero and get transferred to the ‘Negative Zone’, where the alien was trapped.
I was reminded of this obscure tidbit of vintage pop culture in a completely different setting, while I was watching Michael Griffin perform at one of Melbourne’s friendliest jazz venues, ‘Dizzy’s jazz club’ in Richmond, on a Saturday night, sometime ago. Because there seem to be two Michael Griffins. There’s Michael Griffin who looks like a teenager, tall and long-limbed, with an air of awkwardness about him, enhanced by his cringe-worthy stage banter, his uncertain posture and a striped suit that looked a couple of sizes too big for him. And there’s another Michael Griffin, who seems to enter this realm the moment the first one touches his saxophone. It’s Michael Griffin, the alien jazz warrior, a superhero of the saxophone, who came to this planet to save us from bad music and fight the good fight of keeping be-bop relevant. When Michael Griffin’s lips touch the mouthpiece, he’s transfomed: the awkward teenager gives his place to a jazz master of superb confidence – and his pinstripe suit becomes a perfect fit. It’s uncanny.
I had heard of this extraordinary thing, before witnessing it with my own eyes and ears, and it’s all true. In between songs, Michael Griffin was narrating this not-exactly-funny stories that seemed to go nowhere, but the moment you (okay, I) started to feel as if you’re in a holiday table surrounded with relatives (more on that later), where your over-eager teenage cousin starts talking about his latest obsession, he took his saxophone and delivered a near-perfect and perfectly fiery rendition of ‘Ornithology’; ‘Groovin’ High’; ‘September in the Rain’; ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’; ‘Night and Day’. But maybe everyone can do this, play a set of standards with mastery of the instrument and a youthful approach, shedding new light to a classic repertoire (only they can’t). What is certain that not everyone can do is have their own compositions blend in perfectly with these perennial jazz anthems, creating a seamless set of straight jazz mastery, for the delight of the audience (more on that later). The young saxophonist was not alone in this, of course. He was in very good company, his alter-ego Tom Geldens on the drums, Rory Clark an elegant presence on the piano, with his signature crisp sound, and the Melbourne Jazz Scene’s elder statesman, Geoff Kluke, showing us how it’s done.
It’s the ‘us’ in the previous sentence that was a bit problematic. Because there is no way to talk about that Saturday night’s wonderful performance, without addressing the elephant in the venue. The band was playing to an audience comprised of only a handful of people. The new Dizzy’s is an ample, bright and luxurious venue and by all accounts it has found its audience. I don’t know why it was not packed, as it should be. Maybe it was a result of poor publicity, marketing, whatever. Maybe it was just accidental. Whatever it was, this was a failure of the Melbourne Jazz community to support one of Australia’s finest saxophonists – and get immense pleasure out of it. We have a chance to make up for it on 3 and 4 January, when Michael Griffin returns to the city to perform his Thelonious Monk tribute at the Jazz Lab.
Let’s get out of our Negative Zone.