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Frank Griffith

The Coventry Suite

by Ian Mann

August 02, 2006


Big sound, imaginative arrangements and talented solos.

The American tenor saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and educator Frank Griffith has lived and worked in London since 1996. He has had a long and varied career on both sides of the Atlantic and first worked in the nonet format in New York in 1984.

The UK nonet was formed in 1997 and this is their second album. The first was a live recording made at Ealing Jazz Festival in the year 2000. The band continues to make annual appearances at that festival.

“The Coventry Suite” was released in 2004 and was the result of a commission from the City of Coventry. The suite was subsequently performed live at Coventry International Jazz Festival in 2002. This studio recording incorporates the suite alongside other originals by Griffith and by the band’s trombonist Adrian Fry. The album also includes a number of standards and other outside compositions arranged for the band by either Griffith or Fry.

The nonet’s sound is influenced by Miles Davis’ landmark “Birth Of The Cool” recordings and is a mix of the mainstream and modern. The band consists of three reedsmen, Griffith (tenor sax and clarinet), Bob Martin (alto sax) and Mick Foster (baritone sax and bass clarinet). Young Steve Fishwick joins the experienced Henry Lowther in the trumpet section. Lowther also doubles on flugel horn.

Trombonist Fry rounds out the horns and the rhythm section consists of versatile pianist Tom Cawley, bassist Dave Chamberlain and Fishwick’s twin brother Matt on drums. Singer Trudi Kerr guests on three songs and flautist Gareth Lockrane also appears on three numbers. The group make a remarkably big sound; you’d swear there were even more of them.

The album commences with Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When”. The nonet create a smooth, relaxed and swinging sound with an authentic big band atmosphere. The interplay between the horns is excellent. The featured soloists Griffith and Fry add flavour to an already tasty brew.

Griffith’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s ” I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” features the authoritative singing of guest Trudy Kerr. Instrumental solos come from the peerless Lowther followed by Fry’s mellifluous trombone. Bassist Chamberlain then shows his abilities as a soloist backed by Cawley’s comping on piano.

Finally Chamberlain and Cawley support Griffith’s brief clarinet solo before Kerr returns to bring things to a swinging conclusion.

The Griffith original “May Café” has a more contemporary feel and is a feature for pianist Tom Cawley and young bop inspired trumpeter Steve Fishwick. Both “Young Lions” perform with considerable aplomb.

Kerr returns to give a warm vocal performance on Fry’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “So In Love”. Bob Martin’s smooth, clear alto takes the instrumental honours.

Kenny Dorham’s tricky bop theme “Una Mass” is arranged imaginatively by Griffith. Fry solos first followed by Mick Foster on baritone who has done much to underpin this and other previous arrangements and now gets a deserved spell in the spotlight. Lowther’s burnished trumpet is followed by Griffith’s cool tenor.

Fry’s original “Edwd” features a sumptuous horn arrangement in support of Martin’s passionate alto. Martin plays with great authority and this is the most outstanding solo on the album thus far.

The title “Milesteps” speaks for itself and this busy bop inspired piece features Griffith’s slippery tenor, Steve Fishwick’s amazingly adroit trumpet and determined not to be outdone brother Matt gets a brief feature on drums. Great playing all round.

“Get Carter/Ode To Billie Joe” begins with piano a vamp that could come straight from a Horace Silver record. Sombre horns establish a brooding blues mood and vocalist Trudy Kerr gives an emotional reading of Bobbie Gentry’s tale of the American South with it’s juxtaposition of the minutiae of everyday life together with a shocking suicide. Kerr imbues the song with meaning and it’s a terrific cover.

The old Coleman Hawkins classic “Body And Soul” is a feature for the leader’s smoky and dramatic tenor sax and some more fine ensemble playing from the horns.

“The Coventry Suite” itself closes the album and at thirteen minutes in length it is easily the most ambitious piece on the record. It also features themes drawn from other composers in the form of Owen Dutton and Mike Kemp both natives of Coventry.

A traditional 16th Century traditional Coventry tune also finds it’s way into the proceedings. However, it is Griffith who has drawn all these elements together and incorporated them with his own writing and arrangements and it is to his credit that the finished article is a joy to listen to. Once again there is some top quality ensemble playing interspersed with fine solos.

In the opening movement “The Ancient Land” the prodigiously talented Steve Fishwick shines again followed by Griffith’s cool clarinet and Cawley’s thoughtful piano. Although a single piece of music the suite has an episodic quality and a sombre passage entitled follows entitled “Desolate Landscape” presumably a reflection of the damage and misery inflicted on the city of Coventry by the bombings of World War 2. The theme for this was written by Owen Dutton. This passage leads into a brief statement of the traditional 16th Century Christmas carol alluded to previously. Mike Kemp’s theme “Lady G” (Godiva presumably) brings about another change of mood and closes the suite (and the album) on a swinging, joyous note. Adrian Fry once again demonstrates his remarkable agility as a soloist and Bob Martin delivers a biting alto solo.

Although some of it is a little too mainstream for my personal tastes this is an immaculately crafted album which successfully combines mainstream and modern elements in a well-structured programme. This is reflected in the blend of youth and experience in this highly talented and disciplined band which contains some of Britain’s finest soloists. With it’s big sound, imaginative arrangements and talented soloists the nonet should be well worth catching in a live context.

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