Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dwelling in the past? Not a problem at Ruby Braff tribute

By kindofblue

Ever since the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York City in 1972 and became what is now the JVC New York Jazz Festival, detractors have been accusing it of dwelling in the past. They’ve always had a point, and they still do. But considering how much great jazz was produced in the past, dwelling on it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Whether focusing on the past causes the music of the present to get short shrift is an important question, but I’m not going to attempt to answer it now. I come not to get deep but simply to praise the “Salute to Ruby Braff” at the Kaye Playhouse on June 20, one of the first concerts of this year’s festival. It was hot.

Well, not hot in the burn-the-roof-off-this-dump sense. Maybe “warm” is a better word: I didn’t notice anyone breaking a sweat, but they sure did play with a lot of heart. Anyway, it cooked.

Ruby Braff, a trumpeter and cornet player known for his remarkable lyricism and laid-back swing, passed away in 2003. He was himself often accused of dwelling in the past. A contemporary of Parker and Gillespie — actually he was seven years younger than Bird and 10 years younger than Dizzy — he bypassed the beboppers and looked all the way back to Louis Armstrong as a role model. That stance was far less fashionable in the late forties and early fifties, when Braff was first on the scene, than it is now; these days the arguments about which school or style of jazz is “better” have largely subsided, and time has proved that Ruby wasn’t as square as he seemed at the time. He just
happened to love a good melody, written or improvised, more than anything else.

[Photo: Ruby Braff and George Wein, Berlin 1969. © Karlheinz Klüter]

Appropriately, the Kaye Playhouse stage was overflowing with neo-traditionalists equally fond of melody, from Braff’s
contemporaries (including the festival honcho himself, George Wein, who played some decent piano and even sang a little) to former Young Lions, now middle-aged but still leonine, like guitarist Howard Alden (who co-produced the concert), tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton (who became famous in the seventies for being a young guy who supposedly played like Lester Young and Ben Webster, but who these days clearly plays like Scott Hamilton), and especially Warren Vaché, a cornetist solidly in the Braff tradition (which is to say the tradition of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and all the other great pre-bebop trumpeters and cornetists).

They all played their asses off, even if they didn’t look to be breaking a sweat. If the evening had few electrifying high points,
it also had few dull spots. I’ll settle for that.

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