Although their paths had been crossing since the Sixties, alto saxophonist Hank Crawford and organist Jimmy McGriff didn’t play together until 1985, when they shared the stage at New York’s Lone Star Cafe during a benefit for a musician friend. That the two musicians established instant rapport was no surprise. Indeed, Crawford had made a name for himself as a member of the Ray Charles band, while McGriff scored his first hit with an instrumental rendition of Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman.”
“We’re really from the same school,” says Crawford. “Our backgrounds are basically the same—a bit of gospel, a bit of blues and jazz. We were familiar with each other’s styles, so it wasn’t hard to do. There was nothing technical we had to prove. We just played how we felt. It was like a conversation. It was a natural.”
The fact that both musicians recorded for the same label, Milestone, and shared the same producer, soul-jazz veteran Bob Porter, made recording their first album together, 1986's Soul Survivors, a natural too. Now the musical soulmates, who spend half the year touring together (with guitarist Wayne Boyd and drummer Don Williams) and the rest of the time working with their own groups, are back with Crunch Time, their seventh album collaboration and fifth for Milestone.
Produced by Porter, Crunch Time is a typically unpretentious affair that mixes blues (a Crawford-composed tribute to the late Memphis bandleader Gene “Bow Legs” Miller titled “Bow Legs,” Melvin Sparks’s “It’s All Good,” and the McGriff-penned title track), modern jazz standards (Clifford Brown’s “Sandu” and Horace Silver’s “The Preacher”), a soul classic (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”), and two exquisite ballads (Chuck Willis’s “Don’t Deceive Me” and Vincent Youmans’s “Without a Song”). “We don’t plan our albums way ahead of time, because you might change,” Crawford explains. “We just sort of let it ride right up until the end, maybe the last two or three days, and then it just all comes out.”
Melvin Sparks and Cornell Dupree alternate guitar duties on Crunch Time, with drummer Bernard Purdie laying down solid grooves throughout. “Some guys don’t record well, but Melvin, Cornell, and Bernard are good studio session men,” Crawford states. “You don’t have to smother them with a lot of music. If you set it, they’ll get it. They complement your music a lot. Some guys play one style better than others, but these guys are masters of it all.”
Bennie Ross “Hank” Crawford (b. 1934) is one of the most distinctive alto saxophone stylists in all of American music. The Memphis-born musician produces from his horn a searing wail that, as jazz historian Rudi Blesh once observed, “penetrates to the blue core” of everything he plays. Crawford began studying piano at age nine and was soon playing for his church choir. As a teenager, he took up alto saxophone in his high school band. He credits Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges as early influences.
At school, Crawford hung out with Phineas Newborn, Jr., and brother Calvin, Booker Little, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, and Harold Mabern—all of whom would become important jazz figures. Although their after-school hours were largely devoted to studying bebop, the young lions cut their professional teeth on the blues. Before he had finished high school, Crawford was playing in bands led by Ben Branch, Tuff Green, Ike Turner, and Al Jackson, Sr., backing such blues singers as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Junior Parker at the Palace Theater, Club Paradise, and other Memphis venues. In 1953, Crawford went away to Tennessee State College in Nashville, where he developed his arranging skills as leader of the school’s dance band. His big break came in 1958 when Ray Charles passed through Nashville. Baritone saxophonist Leroy “Hog” Cooper had just left the band, and Charles offered Crawford the baritone chair. In 1959, when Cooper returned to the fold, Crawford switched to alto. Two years later, Charles expanded to full big-band size and appointed Crawford musical director. By the time Crawford left Charles in 1963, he had already established himself with several solo albums on Atlantic, for whom he would cut a total of 12 albums. During the Seventies, he recorded eight albums for the Kudu label in the then-fashionable crossover style, but returned to classic form upon signing with Milestone Records in 1983, playing and arranging in the soulful manner that first made him famous. Crawford has recorded ten solo albums for Milestone, the latest being 1998's After Dark.
James Harell McGriff (b. 1936) hails from Philadelphia, the Hammond B-3 organ capital of the world. Such pioneering jazz organists as Milt Buckner and Wild Bill Davis frequently passed through Philadelphia, and it was there that Jimmy Smith laid the groundwork for modern jazz organ. Although he would eventually distinguish himself as the bluesiest of all jazz organists, McGriff actually started out playing a number of other instruments, including bass, saxophone, drums, vibes, and piano.
After working as a policeman and moonlighting as a bassist for Big Maybelle and other blues singers, McGriff decided to concentrate on organ and studied at Philadelphia’s Combe College of Music and at Juilliard in New York City, as well as privately with Buckner, Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes, and classical organist Sonny Gatewood. His experiences at Philadelphia’s Eastern Star Baptist Church also had a profound influence on his musical direction. In 1962, a scout from a tiny record label called Jell heard McGriff’s version of “I’ve Got a Woman” and offered him a contract. As the single began to take off, the New York-based Sue label purchased the master and it became a smash, going all the way to No. 5 on Billboard’s r&b chart and to No. 20 on the pop chart. With that and such subsequent Sue singles as “All About My Girl,” “M.G. Blues,” and “Bump De Bump,” McGriff staked out a musical territory all his own, somewhere between the jazz of Jimmy Smith and the r&b of Booker T. & the MGs.
After leaving Sue Records, McGriff continued to record prolifically such companies as Solid State, Blue Note, Capitol, United Artists, Groove Merchant, and JAM. Reaffirming his blues and gospel roots, he also cut a couple of albums with blues great Junior Parker and a gospel album with singer Tramaine Hawkins. The organist first signed with Milestone Records in 1983 and has cut a total of seven solo albums for the company, the most recent being 1998's Straight Up.