Variety Is the Spice of Braff
There seems to be high demand for Ruby Braff in the jazz market. Fortunately, supply is also high. In less than a decade of recording for the Arbors label, the cornetist has turned out 13 CDs. The catalog of his available work for other labels runs to more than 30 albums, and Braff reissues keep coming.
Adherence to his famous tenet, adoration of the melody, is one reason Braff attracts so many listeners. Still, once he has adored a melody, his variations on and departures from it are among the most inventive-even astonishing-playing of any living jazz artist, regardless of age or style. Examples abound on his new collection, Variety Is the Spice of Braff. The CD is divided among pieces with strings, beautifully arranged by Tommy Newsom, and Braff's arrangements for a big band, medium-sized groups and a quintet.
Braff's somersaults in and out of keys on "Jumpin' at the Woodside," his tremolo followed by an octave drop to a low F sharp in "Liza," his little venture into atonality as he kicks off a series of exchanges with Kenny Davern in "Crazy Rhythm," are displays of daring so effortless that he seems to toss them off casually. In fact, they are marvels of conception and technique at which listeners, particularly if they are trumpet or cornet players, are likely to shake their heads. Few cornetists or trumpeters have the combination of breath control, low-register mastery and imagination to approximate Ben Webster's majestic tenor-sax declamations. Braff's tag on "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" is Webster come to life. Then there's the matter of swing. It is always there in his playing, sometimes hard and on top of the beat, sometimes laid back behind it. He invests each note with swing, as in his opening phrase of "Memories of You," a deliciously slow duet with pianist Bill Charlap.
Braff's humor is usually subtle, but he's not above a vaguely slapstick touch like working the first four bars of "Morning of the Carnival" into the bridge of "Liza." Charlap takes honors in the quotes division, however, for introducing Thelonious Monk's "Nutty" into "Jumpin' at the Woodside." Charlap solos magnificently on all of his tracks, and there is first-rate solo work from Davern, saxophonists Tommy Newsom, Scott Robinson and Chuck Wilson and trumpeters Joe Wilder and Jon-Erik Kellso.
Following the intimate miking of Braff on the Arbors, he at first seems overbalanced by the piano on R&R, a 1979 date co-led by pianist Ralph Sutton, but his playing soon overcomes the disadvantage. Braff reaches deep into his Armstrong heritage, not for licks but for the spiritual connection, which is particularly strong in "Sweethearts on Parade." His solo on "Shoe Shine Boy" amounts to a demonstration of how Lester Young evolved out of Armstrong. Sutton displays how he grew out of Fats Waller and Earl Hines. Drummer Gus Johnson's four-bar exchanges with Sutton remind us what we lost when they died, Johnson in early 2000, Sutton a year later. Bassist Jack Lesberg is still with us, but retired. His solid work here makes obvious why his supportive, unobtrusive bass playing worked so well through several eras.
The CD's high points, though, are the tracks with Braff and Sutton in duo. Their "Royal Garden Blues" swings about as intensely as it is possible to swing, with or without bass and drums. They make their surprisingly slow "Little Rock Getaway" into a reflective rhythm ballad. "'Tain't So, Honey, 'Tain't So" highlights both men's strengths: Sutton striding mightily; Braff pointillistic on the verse and gliding through much of his solo chorus. Among the CD's 19 pieces are a few neglected ones, including Willard Robison's "Think Well of Me" and "Deep Summer Music" and the perky 1920s hit "Get Out and Get Under the Moon." The rest of the repertoire is familiar, but even warhorses are fresh in the care of Braff and Sutton.