Enduring Jazz Delights.
With careers beginning in the fifties, three gifted jazz musicians are thrilling today's fans with some very special recordings.
Over the past twenty years or so, we have witnessed the passing of the great pioneers of jazz, from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington--who died about two decades ago--to Ella Fitzgerald last year. Though we mourn their passing, these beloved figures live on through films and audio recordings.
The emergence of compact discs has made available an incredible array of reissued performances by nearly all the legendary creators of jazz. That good fortune is actually due to the development of the LP in the 1950s. The long-playing record made it possible, for the first time, to hear what jazz musicians had always been doing in live performances--playing pieces as long as they wanted to, not confined to the three minutes dictated by 78 revolutions per minute. Equally significant, however, the LP also made it possible for new talent to emerge, side by side with the pioneers, influenced by them or expanding on what they had set down before.
Many of these later-generation jazz virtuosos--whose talents were first revealed when the LP was a fresh, exciting medium--are still with us. Not only is their early work preserved on CD reissues but their current work as well, as they continue to record, yielding an uninterrupted wellspring of pleasure.
Cornetist Ruby Braff is one of these enduring delights. So are pianist Junior Mance and saxophonist Benny Golson. All three first showed their special talents in the 1950s, and all have continued to flourish, inspire, and entertain ever since.
Fresh Takes on Classics
By the time Braff started getting the praise his talent merited, the evolution of jazz had spun off into what was called hard bop, derived from its brother bop, whose daddy had been swing, and whose granddaddy had started the family with what came to be known as Dixieland. Hard bop, being the newest thing, was the hot record-seller.
Now in reality, such categories are after-the-fact definitions of trends. Jazz musicians will tell you that when they start their careers they usually don't choose to play in a certain style or category of jazz, and they don't do something simply because it's popular. Jazz is first and foremost a reflection of what the artists feel about the music and about themselves. The style they play in shows their affinities--what has influenced and inspired them. They may play a mixture of styles. Some of the great innovators started by playing one style before developing a newer one. Benny Goodman's first records were Dixieland; John Coltrane started his career playing in tightly knit big bands.
Braff didn't pat his feet to the trend of the day, a choice rare among jazz musicians of his generation. He embraced past conceptions: His fresh, lyrical ideas came out of swing and Dixieland. While the hard-boppers astonished listeners with intricate cascades of notes and pounding rhythms, often in their own tunes, Braff was exploring the familiar harmonies of songs older than he was. And he added nuance to his melodies by studying the words to the songs and creating a sense of singing while he played.
He started playing in 1938 when he was eleven. "I was hearing records that lasted two and half minutes where marvelous artists could say great things in four bars," he commented some years ago. Today he still cherishes those examples of concentrated economy. "If they could make that much music in that short a time, shouldn't you be striving to play like that?" he asked.
Listen to Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman Play Nice Tunes (Arbors Records ARCD 19141), recorded in the summer of 1994 and issued in October of last year. The fourteen selections by the cornet and piano duo average around four minutes each. Or find multiple pleasures in two sextet recordings from 1991 that include tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, guitarist Howard Alden, and pianist Dave McKenna, along with bassist Frank Tate and drummer Alan Dawson. They do fabulous things on Ruby Braff and His New England Songhounds, vols. 1 and 2 (Concord Records CCD 4478 and CCD 4504). Average length of those numbers: five minutes.
Braff says, "Very few artists can sustain anything worthwhile which goes on long. They may have thought they did. People who play on and on often aren't conscious that what they're really doing is nothing but a lot of practicing. They should have stopped a long time before."
What makes Braff so good, though, is not just having the wit to espouse brevity, it's his imagination. His playing abounds in tender, jolly, warm smiles. "You have to believe that you're in the music where you want to be," he says. "you have to conjure up the feeling in your mind and communicate that feeling, to try to take people to a land of beauty and joy, to give them dreams of lovely things, to make them bask in that delicious music. Pavarotti does it. Johnny Hodges always did it. You shouldn't be presenting something ugly just because you had a nightmare last night. Why do audiences have to hear that? You should make them feel better and be better from the wonderful music."
Calling his and Hyman's choices "nice tunes" already states the direct sweetness of what they attempt. Witness "I Want a Little Girl" followed, cleverly, by "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." They also make charming the Dietz and Schwartz classic "By Myself," tunes by Eubie Blake and Billy Strayhorn, and the old Louis Armstrong standby (not written by him) "When It's Sleepy Time down South."
Braff soars and swoops, croons with tenderness, lilts, and, as always, embellishes and comments on his emerging melodic thoughts. His is a speaking cornet; he plays it as if he were talking through it, with all the expressiveness of highly inflected yet subtly nuanced speech. Hyman underscores on the piano with sure, solid support, then strides into the foreground, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, his fingers going anywhere and everywhere the music implies. Hyman's brilliant technique never forces itself on you. He remains tasteful and versatile. You're bound to love his salute to Papa Bach in "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."
This serendipitous team has been creating delights together since the 1970s, when both men were in their forties. Now in their sixties, they have ripened well together.
Songhounds pianist McKenna is almost the same age, but the two other players most important to the ensemble, Hamilton and Alden, are about twenty years younger. They are nonetheless in perfect tune with the older men, sharing the same harmonic approach and musical conception.
The members of this sextet put their personal spin on many tunes from the vast roster of songs accumulated in earlier parts of this century, gems made even more shiny: "I'm Crazy `bout My Baby," "This Can't Be Love," "My Shining Hour," "More Than You Know," "Heartaches," "Cabin in the Sky," "Lullaby of Birdland," "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," and "The Days of Wine and Roses."
Saxophonist Hamilton, having made a name for himself on the national jazz scene since the mid-1970s, riffs and swings catchily and distinctly, as he always has. Alden, who continues to grow impressively since his first appearance on records in the early 1980s, offers a plucky electricity in solo guitar lines and inspired chords. And McKenna has fingers as agile as Hyman's. It's a perfect 10: good, clean fun.
Braff, Hamilton, and McKenna also brightened up a hotel club date in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recorded on Ruby Braff and His Buddies: Controlled Nonchalance at the Regattabar, vol. 1 (Arbors ARCD 19134). Several of the pieces in the live 1993 performance last as long as nine minutes--quite a departure from their studio recordings together. "Sometimes it seems everything is going very well," Braff commented long before those appearances, "and we can stretch it out a little, but I wouldn't want to do that too many times. I like to break up everybody's solos and not bug the audience with too much of the same sound."
Discussing his art in a more general way, Braff says, "I like to entertain people; I want to make people happy. I'm a communicator; that's the business I'm in. It's `show business.' And those shouldn't be dirty words. Duke Ellington was a marvelous showman. So was Count Basie, in his own subtle way. Paul McCartney is a good entertainer. And Louis Armstrong? He was such a gregarious, marvelous performer. This universe is made out of the music of Louis Armstrong. You listen to him and you'll find out how to be attuned to it."
Braff's incomparable style doesn't resemble that of the legendary trumpet giant, however. "Mine is a totality of millions of things that I listened to on many different horns," he says. "And my tone doesn't really come from brass instruments. It comes from saxes or lower registers of clarinets or even cellos. Very often I'd try to think, at first, of string sounds. I don't really play high notes; I don't have that range. The kind of training you need for that is completely different from anything I've been doing all my life.
"I've always done the soloist thing," he points out. Although he got the spotlight with a couple of Benny Goodman orchestras in the late 1950s (Goodman was perpetually forming and reforming orchestras), Braff was never actually a regular big band member. "I've missed that," he reflects. "What a thrill it would have been to play in some of those great bands, like Basie's or Ellington's or Woody Herman's. I've missed the joy and the thrill of blending and phrasing with those wonderful players who make the heart and soul vibrate. It's a different kind of music from what I do." Not only do orchestra members need a wide tonal range, but they also have to be able to sightread well and often have to merge into one unit, creating a unified sound within their section.
But what Braff does, he does so well that not only do jazz critics continually praise him and audiences applaud, but plenty of good records abound. Concord has issued twelve, and Arbors now has five, with four more scheduled for release. A few of his European-made records from the 1960s are available on CDs, too. No matter when or with whom Braff plays, his delightful consistency will shine through and warm your ears and your heart.
It's much less easy to come across recent examples of the talents of his contemporaries Benny Golson and Junior Mance, both born within a year of Braff and each other. Stylistically, Golson and Mance share similar conceptions. They made their reputations in hard bop's beginning years, both establishing solid reputations as distinctive voices.
Golson came on the scene playing tenor sax with tones and ideas that reflected influences of older tenor players Lucky Thompson and Don Byas. Thompson and Byas got rich, warm sounds out of their instruments and played mostly in swing groups. At the same time, they started incorporating some of bop's newer conceptions, such as more complicated harmonies. Golson played his version of that mixture in groups with players whose styles were more modern than his. He also stood out as a fine arranger and a highly original composer, best known for his contributions to the Jazztet with Art Farmer.
Pianist Mance at that time quickly established himself as a leading exponent of another highly popular phase of the same swing-bop mix, playing in a funky, bluesy way.
Mance's rhythmic drive, fluidity, and grace can be heard with Canadian musicians on a 1992 session for Sackville Records: Here `Tis, dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie (SKC CD2 3050). His early career found definitive development when he played in Gillespie's big bands in the late 1950s (so did Golson's, in fact). In this 1992 recording, as well as all his others, whether he is playing gentle ballads, bossa nova, or fast tempi, Mance shows he always has more than one dimension.
Now he is reemerging in his homeland, thanks to two Chiaroscuro records. One, called Blue Mance (CR D 331), from 1994, provides the expected title color and some others perhaps not expected. The title piece and bassist Keter Betts' "Headstart" will make you want to nod your head in the "blues" way. A different kind of soulfulness by Mance's trio lyrically sways through Ellington's "Shepherd of the Night," with comforting, friendly hands. Giving even more dimension, they interpret Johnny Mandel's "Emily" with delicacy and good taste, enhanced by technically impressive embellishments at the keyboard.
Chiaroscuro issued newer performances by a slightly different threesome in late 1996: The Floating Jazz Festival Trio (CR D 340). Recorded in 1995 on one of those increasingly popular jazz cruises in the Caribbean, Mance, Betts, and drummer Jackie Williams don't really float, they stomp. Your toes will wiggle and tap along with those on the piano pedals in "Moanin'," a standard written by Bobby Thomas--another bop-to-blues piano sensation with a career that parallels Mance's. Rocking the boat, they live up to the song title "Jumping the Blues," in which, making great waves, Williams creates a drum solo that's worth the trip by itself.
Golson sat in with them for two numbers, producing a tone sounding closer to the airiness of Lester Young than to the sound of his other swing predecessors. His solos also show the long-term influence of early Coltrane, with large rafts of notes cascading all over the scale. Although Golson keeps great rhythm in both pieces--"Three Little Words" and his own "Blues Alley"--he doesn't stand out as distinctively as does Mance.
With so few examples of Golson performances available from recent decades, his I Remember Miles (Evidence Music ECD 22141-2) offers more to like. In this 1996 release of a 1992 session his writing and arranging take as much foreground as his soloing. The focus often tends to go to trumpet player Eddie Henderson, personifying Miles Davis' pre-fusion tenderness and direct ness. However, in "Round Midnight" Golson eloquently plays with the richness he has displayed for many years, an inheritance of Don Byas' tone and concepts. Another highlight is Golson's marvelous arrangement of "Autumn Leaves." In that and his own catchy "Uptown Afterburn," his solos reflect the Coltrane influence, but effectively and dynamically (and they don't sound like Coltrane's later, long-winded endeavors, which Braff would call "practicing"). Henderson also brings forth the plaintive beauty of Golson's title piece, designed to feature only the trumpet.
This recording gets fine further definition with trombone playing by longtime Jazztet partner Curtis Fuller. He's one of the best and most original trombonists to emerge from the same flourishing, productive period.
Braff, Mance, and Golson are all living examples of what makes jazz such a pleasure to listen to. These recent recordings show how well these jazz virtuosos have endured and that they fully deserve their decades-old reputations. Reward yourself: Savor their recordings with your ears--and a much-warmed heart.
Gordon Spencer is a freelance arts writer and radio jazz program host based in Minneapolis.