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Ruby Braff Quartet: Watch What Happens

Two CDs from Arbors capture the essence of a most eloquent link to Bix Beiderbecke: Ruby Braff, who blew his final chorus this past February, five weeks shy of his 76th birthday. Despite failing health (emphysema, asthma), when he recorded Watch What Happens in 2002, Braff sounded like a 30-year-old, executing every idea he heard, phrasing with his trademark warmth (he always heeded Jelly Roll Morton’s advice, “music should be played at a conversational level…you can’t shout a conversation.”) Which accounts for another Braff trademark: his love affair with low tones. Listen to his rich detours to a lower octave in “We’ll Be Together Again.” Check out the same richness of “It’s All Right With Me,” so effective as a ballad. Conversely, you won’t believe the speed and clarity he generates in “Handful of Keys” and “Here’s Carl.” In the realm of ideas, enjoy what Braff and pianist Dick Hyman do with Parker’s “Ornithology.” In the release of “It’s All Right With Me,” Hyman quotes Bird’s bop line; in the bridge of the next track, the title tune, Braff plays “Ornithology” while Hyman simultaneously plays “How High the Moon.” Braff’s impressive talents as a writer are also highlighted: “Here’s Carl” and “Frankly” (or “Perfectly Frank”). The later is given a sensitive reading by singer Darryl Sherman.

The other Arbors release, America, the Beautiful, pairs Braff and Hyman (playing pipe organ) for a live duo concert in Pittsburgh, in 1982, but it is less interesting. Neither Braff nor Hyman disappoints. Braff is his usual, silver-tongued, interpolative self, sounding quite frequently like his personal god, Louis Armstrong. But Hyman is not at a B3; he’s seated at a mighty Wurlitzer Theater organ, which, by its very timbre, is less swinging, less appropriate for jazz comping. Having said that, the title tune provides the album highlight because of the organ’s gorgeous, enveloping sound. But frankly, 17-tracks of pipe organ are hard to take-at least without popcorn. Besides, the final seven tracks are unkind to Ruby, audio-wise. They were added to extend the original LP length to today’s CD needs, but they were put through an engineering miracle first; the original LP, A Pipe Organ Recital Plus One, was abandoned, and the unissued tracks began to decompose.

Originally Published