The Frank Griffith Trio.  27th January 2023

Frank Griffith, tenor saxophone and clarinet.
Richard Wetherall, piano.
Dave Tompkins, bass.

It isn’t difficult to appreciate why the prospect of an evening of Duke Ellington with Billy Strayhorn numbers should seem so restorative. It’s not only their venerable standing in jazz history—it’s also their unassailable beauty, captivating simplicity and inescapable catchiness. Everyone has embedded in their hearts ‘the music of my youth,’ yet when hearing these again—some, nearly a century old—they have much the same kind of familiarity and pull as the pop songs we absorbed in our teens.

The Frank Griffith trio played these tunes with elegance and grace—not at all reverently, but with deep familiarity and evident pleasure. Frank chose to play clarinet for many of the numbers, which brought out the smoothness of the compositions and the dreamy quality of songs like ’Mood Indigo.’ For others, his tenor brought out the strengths of the up-tempo songs. On both instruments, Frank’s improvisations never strayed far from the melody, instead working his mastery through slight rhythmic shifts and brief embellishment.

The same approach was adopted by Richard Wetherall and Dave Tompkins, who kept the integrity of the songs uppermost, but without diminishing their own light-handed improvisational turns. At one unplanned moment, Richard referenced ‘Single Petal of a Rose,’ which Frank then insisted he play in full, solo. It is a lovely number and it was exquisitely played. Another delight was Frank’s duets with Richard and Dave. Finally, Frank allowed himself a brief tenor excursion toward the far shores, a fine demonstration of his technical accomplishments, not least because he retained the essentials of the song at the same time.

Clearly, all three members of the trio could have inverted and extended these songs in countless directions, but they chose instead to let the compositions speak for themselves—but with Ellington Strayhorn songs, that takes musicality of a high order. It was a lovely, restorative  pleasure to hear them.


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