Grant Green, Larry Young, and Elvin Jones Move Organ Jazz Forward

Organ trios and quartets were ubiquitous by the mid-1960s. In African American neighborhood bars and clubs up and down the East Coast, throughout the Rust Belt and points far beyond, Jimmy Smith-inspired organists and bands pumped out grits ‘n’ gravy blues, swinging standards, funky grooves, and ballads. Nothing fancy; social music for the Black working class. That’s nothing to take for granted—the potency of this music has been underappreciated by the critical establishment.

Still, guitarist Grant Green, organist Larry Young, and drummer Elvin Jones had something more adventurous in mind when they gathered at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, on September 11, 1964. Issued under Green’s name, Talkin’ About! (Blue Note) sounds as up to date as that morning’s newspaper. To the Smith template of bebop and soul jazz, the trio adds the rhythmic and harmonic developments of the previous decade, culminating in the interactive postbop of the John Coltrane Quartet. Green, Young, and Jones made organ jazz swing in the present tense.

The chemistry within the trio was so striking that Blue Note recorded it three more times in the next six months, forging a small but indelible body of work that has lost none of its dynamism, charisma, or currency. Each record has a distinctive profile defined by its material, leader, and whether the trio goes it alone or welcomes a guest.

The three subsequent LPs present quartets: Young’s Into Somethin’ (the guest is Sam Rivers), followed by two more under Green’s name, Street of Dreams (Bobby Hutcherson) and I Want to Hold Your Hand (Hank Mobley).

Green, Young, and Jones have such strong individual personalities that the equilateral triangle heard on these records was never guaranteed. The humility and empathy with which they share the musical space and coalesce into an ensemble is a thing of beauty. Here’s another word for it: love.

“Swing is a thing of love,” says guitarist Peter Bernstein, whose longstanding cooperative trio with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart has roots in the Green-Young-Jones legacy. “If people love each other, they can swing together. That’s what you hear with Grant, Larry, and Elvin.”

One transcendent example: “I Wish You Love” on Street of Dreams. Composed by Frenchman Charles Trenet with English lyrics by Albert Beach, the song was hot in 1964; Gloria Lynne’s version hit No. 28 on the Billboard chart in March. Green, Young, and Jones slap a seductively loose Latin groove on the tune. Jones’ elliptical swirl of rhythm creates a beat as wide as the Grand Canyon. Young’s supple dynamics, slippery basslines, and elastic chording sneak into your consciousness, never crowding Hutcherson’s bell tunes or Green’s ardent delivery of the melody. No one is in a hurry. The cats take their time, but no one wastes their time.

Green’s solo is one of his best on record. He rides the groove, phrasing behind the beat, his tangy, trebly tone and percussive pop kicking the music forward. Animated rhythm, riffs, repetition, curlicue triplets, blues elocutions, and bursts of sly bebop meld into a mesmerizing story of melodic and rhythmic rhyme. Green does not have monster chops by today’s standards, but his ideas cut deep. As sophisticated as he and his colleagues play, even a jazz novice can relate to it. Ecstasy is a universal emotion.

Talkin’ About! showcases the trio’s versatility. Two Young originals reveal the band’s exploratory side: the Monk-like “Luny Tune” and the Coltrane-inspired minor blues, “Talkin’ About JC” Young’s quartal voicings and pentatonic scales speak to McCoy Tyner’s influence. His thrilling four-and-a-half-minute solo on the blues pushes the organ envelope for 1964. Jones, four years into his tenure with Trane, is in his element. Meanwhile, three standards, including the then-current Streisand power ballad “People,” wink at the neighborhood bar crowd.

The most progressive of the four LPs, Into Somethin’ features only original material and Rivers’ garrulous tenor skirting the cutting edge. Green’s modal “Plaza de Toros” is colored by the Spanish tinge and alternating dominant chords a half step apart. Jones’ jet-propelled Latin beat sounds like a surreal mambo. Young’s “Paris Eyes” and “Ritha” are alluring swingers. “Tyrone” and “Backup” are penetrating blues. The players bat so many triplets back and forth—a group calling card—you may start hearing these rhythms in your sleep.

Street of Dreams and I Want to Hold Your Hand tack back toward adventuresome populism. Both LPs mix standards old and new, including a nod to the teenage market with the Beatles anthem; the trio transforms it into an irresistibly greasy bossa nova. Mobley’s hip lyricism on the Lennon/ McCartney ditty is a highlight. So is Hutcherson’s levitating vibes solo above Jones’ floating 5/4 meter on “Lazy Afternoon.”

Green, Young, and Jones never recorded together as a group after March 1965. It’s not even clear if the trio ever existed outside the studio, though there are firsthand accounts of Green, Young, and drummer Candy Finch working in Harlem. As an armchair producer, I often dream of the fireworks that a live album by Green, Young, and Jones might have generated and ponder what Joe Henderson or Wayne Shorter might have sounded like with them. It’s hard not to feel that the trio had more love to share.

Further listening

Grant Green: Matador (Blue Note)
Recorded in 1964 but not issued until 1979, this forward-looking date finds a fearless Green going toe-to-toe on “My Favorite Things” with McCoy Tyner and Jones, plus Bob Cranshaw.

Grant Green: Solid (Blue Note)
Another burning LP taped a few weeks after Matador with the same rhythm section and saxophonists Joe Henderson and James Spalding. Also unreleased until 1979.

Larry Young: Unity (Blue Note)
Young’s finest hour and a postbop masterpiece recorded in 1965 with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, and Jones. The composing and playing remain state-of-the-art.

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