A genuine jazz legend lives up to his reputation

Review by Dick Laurie, Conductor The Elastic Band


ON FRIDAY, August 2, a group of the faithful assembled in good order in Larry's Room at the Pizza on the Park to hear the world's greatest cornet player.

The posse of Elastic disciples included Ken Reece (of course, where else would a cornet player be?), clarinetist/bandleader Dick Laurie, guitarist George Oag, trombonist John Mumford (over from Zurich for a rehearsal for the Ealing Jazz Festival) and distinguished entertainments writer Paul Nelson. The party was completed by Sian and Andrew Campbell-Curtis, who have never been known to miss a jazz history-making occasion.

The man we had all come to hear was, of course, Ruby Braff, now seriously affected by pulmonary emphysema. Hunched and considerably reduced in stature in comparison with the last time we saw him, Braff, if anything, has gained in stature as an artist.

His condition makes the highest registers of his instrument out of bounds, but he has compensated by producing beautifully full and tender flugelhorn-like sounds in the lowest.

This has meant some surprising changes of key in the standards he played, but his front-line accompanist, the sure-footed Alan Barnes, cares not in which key he is asked to play, he is fluent in them all.

Also in the Braff ensemble were Alan Ganley on drums, the ubiquitous Dave Green on double bass - he is in danger of taking on the mantle of the late Ray Brown - and a Braff find, the American Jonathan Wheatley on seven-string guitar.

Before the concert Alan Barnes had admitted to this writer that he had, for the first time in many years, been slightly concerned about the frontline company he was to keep. Not because of any doubts about his own musical ability which is impeccable, but because Braff is renowned for employing, shall we say, industrial-strength forthrightness when he feels the occasion demands.

Alan need not have feared. The leader was generous with his charm and humour and soon the room was in a relaxed and cheerful mood.

In his note on Braff in 'Jazz, the Essential Companion', Digby Fairweather writes that Braff embodies pretty well the whole of the middle period of the history of jazz. Born in 1927, his first classic recordings were with Vic Dickenson's septet in 1953-4 in which he invented the term 'mainstream' single-handed. He has had stormy relationships with many fellow leaders but decided in the Seventies only to work with those whose musical viewpoint matched his own.

Warren Vaché once called him 'the best trumpeter walking now', before the switch to cornet, and there seems to be no reason to change that point of view. A particularly happy collaboration for him was with the Alex Welsh band.

For the record, this is the programme Braff selected for our delight: You And The Night and The Music; Someday Sweetheart; In My Solitude; Love Me or Leave Me; A Fine Romance; Skylark; This Can't be Love; These Foolish Things; Small Hotel; When I Wish Upon The Moon and Barnes's feature, Nancy With The Laughing Eyes.

You certainly don't want a note-by-note account of the performances. To report that there could be emphatically no adverse criticism of any of the players is to state the expected obvious: musicians of this caliber don't make mistakes or play badly and when the occasion arises, they rise to it, as they did on this night.

Barnes was in top form, playing delicately behind the leader and eschewing, in his solos, the temptation to blow out. Ruby was very obviously pleased with his partner. Jonathan Wheatley, who Braff describes as the Stan Getz of the guitar, is certainly a fine guitarist in the George Barnes mould, but not a great one. The famous duo of Ganley and Green (known affectionately as Gangrene in the business) are so symbiotic as to sound like a single music-making machine.

To add frisson to the occasion, we spotted Tony Bennett in the audience - and Cindy Hacker too, a great friend to jazz who has been Braff's minder on this and previous trips to this country and to whom he has never offered anything, she says, but the greatest courtesy. Let's hope for all music lovers' sakes that Cindy will be employed again to care for the temporal needs of this genuine jazz legend.