copyright © 2000 George Kanzler
In one of the New Jersey jazz club coups of the year, Shanghai Jazz presented jazz cornetist Ruby Braff in a rare live performance Sunday night.
The cornetist, who has been hobbled by respiratory ailments, was in New York last week, recording what he himself admitted might well be his last sessions. He agreed to further challenge his resources by playing two sets at the Madison club, co-leading a quartet with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.
An admirer of Louis Armstrong, Braff, 73, was a member of the first traditional jazz revival that paralleled the development of bebop and modern jazz. He played with such traditional jazz and swing greats as Pee Wee Russell and Benny Goodman before concentrating on chamber jazz-style ensembles, often without drummers.
Braff has always gone against the grain as a cornet and trumpet player, eschewing the flamboyance associated with the instrument for intimacy, playing with a soft, burnished tone and favoring whispered low notes over ear-splitting high ones. That preference has become a necessity since he, in the words of one colleague, "is playing on half a lung now."
But through two sets on Sunday night, it was hard to square that "half a lung" remark with Braff's consistently brilliant, warm, passionate playing. His personal style was marvelously intact, from his lyrical parsing of melodies to his pert, joyously swinging obligatos -- casual asides delivered with the brevity and wit of literary aphorisms.
It wasn't just Braff's night either. The quartet was a paradigm of chamber jazz, the co-leaders joined by pianist Ben Aranov and bassist John Beal, with each player given ample solo space, as well as opportunities to match musical wits with Braff. The exchanges were as much epigrammatic dialogue as musical four-bar trades.
This was also chamber jazz with a definite lilt. Tempos ranged from the heartbeat and finger-snapping range to a surprisingly fast second-set finale, a "Just You, Just Me" crackling with swing, capped off by Braff's playful commentary coda, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
Braff likes to juxtapose tunes and lace his solos with quotes. "Mean to Me," a series of cornet and bass exchanges, became a litany of Duke Ellington melodies. A cornet chorus of "Over the Rainbow" dropped into the middle of "When I Fall In Love." And "I Can't Get Started With You" moved over to "On the Sunny Side of the Street."
The quartet concentrated on American Popular Songbook standards, tunes Braff knows so well he can play hide-and-seek with the melodies, teasing the audience into playing "Name That Tune." But the cornetist knows them so well his variations have the resonance of equally unforgettable melodies. They are lyrical improvisations of the highest level, as on his interpretations of "Thou Swell" and "Yesterdays," the latter highlighted by a conversational duet between cornet and guitar and a delicate, bowed bass solo.
While Braff usually played the lead chorus, pianist Aranov led off "Poor Butterfly," going right to the lyrical, melancholy heart of that beautiful, too-infrequently heard standard. Aranov also shone on another early standard, "Memories of You," as the quartet pared down, first to cornet and piano, then to a limpid, solo, piano chorus distilling the song's essence.
If the recordings Braff has been making this past week for Arbors Records are as inspired as his playing at Shanghai Jazz, they should be a capstone of the jazzman's long career.
George Kanzler, who has retired to Simpsonville, SC after his lengthy tenure as a jazz journalist in New Jersey, originally wrote this piece for the Newark Star Ledger, August 1, 2000.
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