Michael Weiss Remembers Johnny Griffin

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Long before he won the Thelonious Monk Institute Composers Competition in 2000, Michael Weiss established himself as a pianist. Fresh out of Dallas in his early twenties, he was soon working with Jon Hendricks, Junior Cook, Charles McPherson and Lou Donaldson, among others. He went on to play with Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Frank Wess, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus Epitaph Orchestra. As a leader, he had groups that included Cook, McPherson, Tom Harrell, Lew Tabackin and a galaxy of bassists and drummers, among them Dennis Irwin, Peter Washington, Al Harewood and Ben Riley.

In The Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich wrote of Weiss, “Even at full tilt, his sound is sleek, his lines lucid, his textures virtually transparent" The New York Times referred to his “...cooly intelligent lyricism." Weiss's longest association was with Johnny Griffin. He played with the tenor saxophonist from 1987 until Griffin's death last month at the age of eighty. Shortly after Griffin died, Weiss wrote an appreciation and offered it to Rifftides. We are pleased to have it.

 Reminiscing About Johnny Griffin

by Michael Weiss

Johnny Griffin was one of the great personalities and individuals of jazz, and if jazz is supposed to embody anything, it is individuality, together with improvisation and collaboration.  Griffin was one of the very best soloists who could fully express their personality through their instrument. You hear one note and you know that it's Johnny. Everything that came out of his horn was a magnification of who he is. You don't even notice his influences anymore. He really played like nobody else.  His phrases were so unpredictable.  He had this way of abruptly lunging at things at any moment, but could also finish the same line with a sweet lyrical melody. Griffin should be remembered not only for his technical virtuosity but for how he used that technique in his overall expression, woven into the fabric of his style.

Long before I played with Johnny I knew all his records with Monk and Jaws very well and had even transcribed a few of his solos. In 1985 I had been working with his drummer Kenny Washington so when Griff's regular pianist was unable to make a gig, Kenny recommended me and I joined the band shortly after that. We toured every year up to 2001.

Working with Griffin was among the most - if not the most - exhilarating and electrifying experiences I've had on the bandstand with any leader. And not just because Johnny liked to play fast tempos. At any tempo there was a level of energy and excitement on the stage that never felt commonplace. Even after I worked hundreds of gigs with Johnny over several years, there was an intensity, focus and energy with each set that was unlike any other group I've played with. It was like mental weightlifting. Griffin, a real extrovert, had a lot to express through his horn and was such a commanding presence that he drew the same thing out of you. Having to solo after him night after night I was compelled to make sure my musical statement was meaningful and worthwhile. Accompanying him was also no easy task, but it didn't take long to realize the best modus operandi was to just stay out of his way. Overall, it was a great training ground to experience that level of seriousness of purpose and integrity on the bandstand.

Griff was fun to be around. He knew how to enjoy life and seemed very comfortable in his own skin. This generally happy demeanor was quite contagious. On the gig, he listened closely to the rhythm section as we worked our stuff out in our solos. He especially delighted in listening to us wrestle through a particular musical idea. During such occasions, I might look up and see Johnny with his eyes aglow and a big smile. He enjoyed the creative struggle and he was along with you for the ride. Playing jazz for him was a positive, joyous experience and he spread that feeling to everyone in the audience. He had the people in the palm of his hand all the time. He was very comfortable on the mic and frequently said some very funny things. But he was deadly serious about musicmaking - on the bandstand there was no nonsense, no messing around.

The Johnny Griffin Quartet was one of the few working bands in jazz that was still touring regularly throughout the 1990s. As performing night after night is the only way a musician can really develop and improve on his craft, I'm grateful to have been able to do exactly that with Johnny Griffin.

To hear Michael Weiss in two of his many collaborations with Griffin, listen to the 1990 CD The Cat and to Griffin's 2000 quintet album with Steve Grossman. Grossman, also an expatriate American tenor player in France, is an improviser whose zeal and vigor nearly match Griffin's. 

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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