Saxtivity: No Deal

Frank Griffith's saxophone quartet straddles the jazz-classical divide with jazz feeling, neat orchestration and skilful ensemble playing

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Seen from a mainstream viewpoint, a saxophone quartet might appear to need a rhythm section. But it can provide its own motor pulse as well as wide variations in pitch. UK saxophonist Frank Griffith knows that. He’s probably also aware of how the format has veered towards the recital room, where the classical heirs of Adolphe Sax engage in the futile task of taking back control of the instrument from purloining jazzers. Some hope.

Saxtivity is his SATB foursome of John Padfield (soprano, doubling alto), Griffith himself (alto), Rick Halliwell (tenor) and Phil Shotton (baritone). As composer, arranger, performer and director he does well by it, further aware of (but unconcerned about) the existence of the sopranino in E flat and the sub-contrabass in B flat, the latter requiring Pickfords to shift it.

Griffith’s arrangement of Ted Grouya’s Flamingo envelops the tune in contrapuntal thickets inside which harmonising twosomes and threesomes – and foursomes – are like sparking synapses; but his big-band antecedents ensure that his own compositions, such as the title track and Saxtitivation, honour the music in which saxes, at the turn of the 20th century, found a new and unexpected home. That applies especially to The Sampler, in which Shotton leads off in the basement and all get to dance atop before accommodating him too.

Dick Walter’s three-movement Jazz Suite, immaculately delivered, is the sort of piece classical sax quartets include as a nod to jazz. Griffith offers a smart arrangement of Sid Ramin’s Music To Watch Girls By, a jaunty transposition that bears comparison with Lennie Niehaus’s of Dick Robertson’s Yesterday’s Gardenias.

When the big band’s sax choir stands up and steps forward to declaim a capella, some might hear honking novelty. Griffith is aware of that too on an album replete with jazz feeling, neat orchestration and skilful ensemble playing.

Discography
Flamingo; Jazz Suite For Saxophone Quartet; Saxtitivation; Quark; The Sampler; Tribal Two-Step; No Deal; Wapango; Music To Watch Girls By; Yesterday’s Gardenias (40.55)
Frank Griffith (as); John Padfield (ss, as); Rick Halliwell (ts); Phil Shotton (bar). Liverpool, February 2020.
Saxtivity Sounds