Johnny Griffin: The Kerry Dancers (and other swinging folk) (1962) Riverside

Selection: Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair (trad)

.  .  .

Track List (Wiki-links)

  1. “The Kerry Dancers” (Traditional) – 4:44
  2. Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (Traditional) – 6:15
  3. Green Grow the Rushes” (Traditional) – 4:38
  4. The Londonderry Air” (Traditional) – 4:54
  5. “25½ Daze” (Sara Cassey) – 4:42
  6. “Oh, Now I See” (Johnny Griffin) – 5:11
  7. Hush-a-Bye”  (Fain-Seelen-Thomas) cf. back cover – 4:56
  8. “Ballad for Monsieur” (Sara Cassey) – 3:35


Johnny Griffin, tenor sax; Barry Harris, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Ben Riley, drums; recorded Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, December 21, 1961 (tracks 2, 6 & 7), January 5, 1962 (tracks 3, 5 & 8) and January 29, 1962 (tracks 1 & 4) recording engineer probably Ray Fowler.


Griffin was not treading an unmarked path with the Kerry Dance. This song goes back to at least the 1930’s with several jazz versions: Gigi Gryce had taken a shot at it, in a big band overpowering arrangement (Nica’s Tempo, 1955) , and Claude Williamson Trio (also 1955), very sprightly in smaller format.

One had a better cover than the other – you decide. Waiter – umm…the dessert, I think I’ll have the cheesecake.

All Music:

“Many straight-ahead bop musicians would never consider recording traditional folk songs from the British Isles (says AllMusic) , but that’s exactly what Johnny Griffin does on The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk — and this album is one of his best releases of the 1960s.”

Coltrane managed another folk-tune on Africa Brass, Greensleeves, helped by a very smokey introduction:

Griffin too pulls off a similarly marvelous feat, delivering familiar folk tunes in a fresh and interesting way. His hard-swinging improvisation flows seamlessly over the traditional songs, creating something quite unique.  By 1962 Griffin had moved on from battle-stations, signalled by his previous album “A Change Of Pace”, into a more sensitive and melodic player, though still armed with speed when called for.

The selection, Black Is The Colour, is a wonderful mix of melody line and free-swinging improv.  Harris  grips the rythmic undertow, his voicings are just perfect, Griffin picks out the notes of the melody, the bridge invents a multi-octave pause, from which Griffin really swings, launching lines of rapid fire in climax, gorgeous. I absolutely adore this track.

The rhythm section is A-list: Barry Harris, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley. Half the album is more of more conventional form, with two compositions credited to “Sara Cassey”, a name unfamiliar to me, probably because  I pay insufficient attention to composer credits. Let’s put that right.

from Don Sickler:
I can tell you only a few things about Sara Cassey. She was from Detroit and came to New York sometime in the mid ’50’s. She was a pianist, but not a performing jazz pianist. She wrote her music out in full, in notation, not melody with chord symbols. While in New York, she worked for Riverside Records and got to meet the great jazz musicians who recorded for that label


Many of the Detroit musicians, such as the Jones brothers (Hank, Thad and Elvin), pianists Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Roland Hanna recognised her as a talented composer, and  passed that to other artists like Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Billy Taylor, Junior Mance, Marian McPartland, and Charlie Persip, all of whom recorded her music. Unfortunately, she passed away too soon, in 1966, age only 37

A selection of Sara Cassey compositions: Warm Blue Stream (Candido and others) , The Seasons (Junior Mance), The Song Is You (Charlie Persip), Very Near Blue (Clark Terry/ Thelonious Monk), Windflower (Herb Ellis and others) Just For Fun (Hank Jones) Shadowland (Elvin Jones). Very impressive young lady to catch their ears: Hi Mr Jones, I have some compositions you might like…

Vinyl: Art Director’s Lunch Break

Music gets critical examination, but often art work gets a free pass. If we can judge the music,  we can judge the artwork. While the Art Director is out to lunch, we sneak into their office.

The Kerry Dancers cover is … puzzling. Johnny is pictured standing alone in a patch of deserted woodland. Why is he in the woods, alone?  He has one leg up on a high back chair. Sitting on that chair in the woods would be look even more incongruous. Why is the chair there at all?  No obvious connection between anything in the picture and the album unless  “a bit of woodland” represents the lush green of the Emerald Isle. Suddenly, we spot the photographer’s brief.

Cover Photography Masterclass:

The key to good photographic exposure is to retain some level of detail in both the highlights and the shadows, which can be difficult with a very high contrast setting like this, wider than the film can cope with. The camera exposure here has been set to average the contrasty background, unfortunately plunging the subject, into deep shadow, because they are not “average”. The solution is to have someone hold a reflective board close to the subject but out of the frame,  to punch some light back in but without spoiling the natural range of tones of the setting. Camera assistant standing in the peat-bog? . . wook wook.

Comparison is a useful critical tool, see how much better the idea can be handled. . Here’s a similar woodland scene cover, the marvelous Out Of The Afternoon, Roy Haynes with Roland Kirk, for Impulse.

Impulse took the band out of the studio, into the woods.  Each brought their instrument, except Tommy Flanagan’s piano but on the whole, it’s a great cover, for a great album, the setting connects to the title. Got to love game Roland Kirk, horn, and walking stick in hand.  Look this way Roland! Err, which way would that be?

Vinyl: Riverside  RLP420 – UK Interdisk.

Early ’60s mono, Philips pressing. Though I have a preference for US originals, some labels like Riverside and Jazzland are prone to noisy pressings. UK Philips are generally pretty good, this is no exception.

Harry’s Place

Jazz paparazzi  Harry M was on the scene in the crucial years and places, and graciously contributes some pictures from his personal archive. He has a fine eye for composition, empathy with the subject, and mastery of these low-light conditions, retaining a sense of movement. He needs no lessons from me.

Johnny Griffin at  Ronnie Scotts Club 1969

Sam Jones at  Copenhagen 1969 (not bass on this recording, which is Ron Carter, but a great picture, so I’ll throw it in anyway)                                                                                                      Photo Credits: Harry M

Collector’s Corner

The Kerry Dancers is surprisingly hard to find, only around a half dozen copies have ever come to auction, about one a year.  When copies do turn up, prices have reached over $230. Simple case of supply and demand: this album is “rare”.Though musically successful, the scarcity of copies suggests not everyone was convinced of the proposition: jazzing up Irish and Scottish folk tunes.

The seller I bought it from said he had a sentimental attachment to the album – his wife was from Kerry. Having  no particular association with the Irish, I found myself listening to some tracks repeatedly, no sentiment required. I think it is a great album.

I’m curious what anyone else makes of it?

11 thoughts on “Johnny Griffin: The Kerry Dancers (and other swinging folk) (1962) Riverside

  1. I always avoided this one due to the title and cover too even though I really like Griffin. One day I came across the 45 RPM Pressing used for a good price so I picked it up and glad I did. It is very good.

  2. I have always been put off by the album title and what it implies, some folks fiddling around in kilt like outfits.
    I played it today, the first time since the album is in my collection. Side two is amongst the best Griffin I ever heard. Most impressive. The ’Irish’ side one is nice. Griffin did a nice job transcribing the folk music into jazz.
    My copy is a big blue label U.S. pressing. Excellent sound. The bass well recorded.
    Thank you LJC for highlighting the Kerry Dancers.

  3. I also have the same UK Riverside of this album and concur that it sounds great and is a fine Griffin album. Cost me £5 in near mint !

  4. In a similar vein: Greensleeves by Coleman Hawkins on Prestige 7149. The album has the very original title ’Soul’.

    • Greensleeves is one of my favorite themes,Bean’s version showcases his big, fat tone. When Pres substituted for Bean in Basie’s orchestra, almost everybody was disappointed by his thin timbre.history showed that Bean AND Pres have been two of the major saxophone voices of all times.

      • Coleman Hawkins version of Greensleeves with Burrell and Bryant is a lovely little piece. Did Coltrane ever record the tune on tenor? There are at least 5 Coltrane versions – on 3 albums and then some alternate takes – but they are all on soprano.

  5. I didn’t know it was so rare. I think it was about a tenner for a fairly well used copy. Maybe the cover suggests novelty album but it’s one of his best and more interesting than all those Griff and Lock ones. I always like to find a Riverside.

  6. Hush-a-Bye (Traditional) > Hush-a-Bye (Fain-Seelen-Thomas) [cf. back cover]
    had took > had taken
    aso 1955 > also 1955
    cheescake > cheesecake
    singnalled > signalled
    Phillips pressing > Philips pressing
    UK Phillips > UK Philips
    asociation > association

  7. I have always enjoyed this album even though I would suggest it was at least part of a remoulding of Griffin for the label , considering the previous issue was a tribute the Billie Holiday with strings.
    I would also give a shout out to a forgotten recording engineer Ray Fowler, he developed a great sound for plenty of Riverside/Jazzland albums. Finally a thought on the strange cover set up , could it be they were trying to relate to the chorus of The Kerry Dancers which is as follows, “When the boys began to gather In the glen of a summer’s night And the Kerry piper’s tuning Made us long with wild delight”

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