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Holland Park Non-Stop

The Frank Griffith Big Band

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

Holland Park Non-Stop

Intelligent, sophisticated arrangements allied to some excellent playing, none more so than from the leader himself who excels on both tenor and clarinet, make for a highly accomplished album.

The Frank Griffith Big Band

“Holland Park Non-Stop”

(Hep Records 2095)

The Oregon born saxophonist, clarinettist composer, arranger and jazz educator Frank Griffith moved to the UK in 1996 and is currently the Director of Performance at the School of Arts at Brunel University. Besides his acclaimed educational work Griffith is also a performing jazz musician who runs a long established nonet as well as fronting numerous smaller groups and appearing as a prolific sideman.. The nonet’s second album, “The Coventry Suite” (2006), is reviewed elsewhere on this site. 

However Griffiths’ main love remains the big band, an affection first nurtured during studies at New York’s City College and then at the Manhattan School of Music where he studied for his Master’s. While still in the US Griffith played in the big bands of pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and drummer Mel Lewis as well as co-leading a big band with trumpeter Bill Mobley that featured many of New York’s finest players. He even toured as lead alto with a revamped Glenn Miller Orchestra and also worked with Mel Torme, Jon Hendricks, Ron Carter and Lionel Hampton. Since moving to the UK Griffith has written for and played with drummer Pete Cater’s Big Band and appeared with the John Dankworth Big Band before going on to form his own outfit.

This 2011 release on the Scottish Hep Jazz label represents Griffith’s recorded début as big band leader. He has assembled a cast of players that bridges the generations with seasoned campaigners rubbing shoulders with young rising stars, many of them former Griffith pupils one would imagine. Guest singer Tina May adds her classy vocals to three of the album’s twelve selections.

The band lines up;

Frank Griffith-clarinet, tenor sax, leader, arranger
Tony Dixon-lead trumpet
Freddie Gavita, Steve Fishwick, Ed Benstead-trumpets & flugelhorns
Adrian Fry, Simon Walker, Mattias Eskilsson (trombones), Roger Williams (bass trombone)
Sam Mayne, Matt Wates (alto sax/flute), Bob Sydor, Karen Sharp (tenor sax, clarinet)
Richard Shepherd (baritone sax, bass clarinet)
John Turville (piano), Spencer Brown (bass), Matt Home (drums)
Tina May (guest vocalist).

The programme consists of a mix of jazz and bop standards, mainly drawn from The Great American Songbook, plus four originals from Griffith that showcase his compositional as well as arranging skills.

The album kicks off with an effervescent arrangement of the Jimmy Van Heusen tune “Oh You Crazy Moon” sung by Tina May who adds an element of scat to her exuberant interpretation of the lyrics. At a little under three minutes things are kept concise and succinct with Griffith’s pithy tenor break the only instrumental solo. The piece was included at the suggestion of Griffith’s co-producer and Hep label boss Alastair Robertson.

Horace Silver’s “Strollin’” gives the instrumentalists more of a chance to stretch out. Young trumpeter Freddie Gavita certainly grabs the opportunity with both hands as he solos with fluent authority, his tone ranging from the warmly conversational to the eloquently strident. Ex NYJO member Sam Mayne, surely one of the UK’s most underrated players, is similarly incisive on alto and Adrian Fry, who also made a huge contribution to the success of “The Coventry Suite”, demonstrates his customary fluency and agility on trombone. Matt Home enjoys a series of drum breaks as the piece builds towards a rousing finale in an arrangement by Griffith assisted by Pete Cater. 

Griffith’s arrangement of the standard “Baby Won’t Be Please Come Home” is an attempt to give the music a 1960’s Count Basie feel. Peter Vacher’s informative liner notes quote Griffith as saying “the entire ensemble is voiced within a single octave, not as easy as it sounds!”. The result is a warm,  constrained sound with Griffith’s rounded clarinet the main solo voice alongside the tightly muted trumpet of Steve Fishwick.

The first Griffith original is “Antonia”, a lively Latin tinged tune with what Griffith describes as “a scintillating alto solo by Matt Wates”. Gavita also gets another chance to demonstrate his chops and enters into a sparky dialogue with Wates. We also get to enjoy the keyboard skills of the brilliant young pianist John Turville and whole is driven along by Home’s subtly propulsive rhythms.

The ballad “That’s All” offers Tina May the chance to demonstrate another side of her vocal talents, emoting purposefully on a lush,slowed down version that also features the baritone sax of Richard Shepherd. 

The quirky arrangement of “Shine” takes us back to the 1920’s with Griffiths’ sinuous clarinet to the fore alongside Turville’s sparklingly inventive piano as Home’s rapidly brushed drums provide the understated rhythmic drive. This is a scintillating,wonderfully good humoured interpretation of a very old favourite.
“Body and Soul” is one of the most covered pieces in the jazz repertoire. It’s traditionally been a tenor sax showcase since Coleman Hawkins’ definitive 1939 version and Griffith makes no apologies for including it here. Featuring his own tenor on a warm ballad interpretation of the tune Griffith more than does it justice with his lush but understated big band arrangement adding depth and context to his imperious tenor sax soloing.

“JCC” is another Griffith original. The title stands for “Jazz Corner Comrade” and is a homage to New York’s Birdland Jazz Club, the “Jazz corner of The World”. It’s punchy, hard hitting piece with more of a contemporary blues vibe and incorporates strong contributions from Turville and trumpeter Ed Benstead alongside what Griffith describes as “a hard sockin’ tenor solo by Bob Sydor”. There are also some rousing ensemble passages plus an extensive bass feature for the hitherto unsung hero Spencer Brown. Griffith describes his clarinet playing throughout the album as akin to a “roving narrator,  reporting and commentating on the surroundings”. That appears to be the case here as he pops up with a quick fire, succinct solo towards the close of the piece.

Another original, “Holland Park”, is effectively the album’s title track. The piece was commissioned by the Cardinal Vaughan School in the London district of the same name for their big band. It is a surprisingly forceful jazz waltz that includes some suitably rewarding ensemble passages alongside solos from Gavita on flugelhorn and Mayne on alto, plus further dialogue between the pair. Matt Home weighs in with a series of fiery drum breaks.

Tina May returns for “Travellin’ Light” adding what Griffith describes as “her sassy swagger” to an arrangement that also features the Swede Mattias Eskillsson on trombone alongside Sydor on tenor and the leader on clarinet.

The final original, “Ricochet” utilises the famous “I Got Rhythm” chord sequence as the jumping off point for a tricky, up tempo arrangement that features barnstorming solos from Wates, Eskillsson, Karen Sharp, Griffith, and particularly Steve Fishwick, whose brassy solo Griffith describes as “blinding”. Brown and Home ensure that the whole thing swings prodigiously with the drummer enjoying a series of suitably explosive breaks. 

The album concludes with a brief reading of the ballad “These Foolish Things” with the leader’s smoky tenor taking pride of place. For completists it should be noted that trombonist Chris Gower replaces Adrian Fry on this track only.

“Holland Park Non-Stop” may offer few genuine surprises but it exhibits the kind of warmth, charm and class that we’ve come to expect from Frank Griffith. Intelligent, sophisticated arrangements allied to some excellent playing, none more so than from the leader himself who excels on both tenor and clarinet, make for a highly accomplished album. All the soloists, and indeed the ensemble as a whole, acquit themselves well as does singer Tina May, surely one of the UK’s best and most versatile vocalists. Frank Griffith is a very welcome American import and a man who has done much to further the cause of jazz in the UK.   



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