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MARIETTA, OH, USA - The Grim Reaper has been tough on jazz musicians in the past few years and the recent death of cornet genius Ruby Braff seems a particularly large loss. Braff, whose albums have been released in a steady stream for many years, left this Earth still maintaining his lofty reputation. At 76, Braff seemed like a youngster in a crowd of fantastic musicians who seemed destined for better achievements.
Personally, the death leaves me feeling especially down in the dumps. A few years ago, when "Powerssound" was still a newbie with G21, I received a lovely letter from Braff thanking me for my words of praise for an Arbors Records release. Although only a few sentences, that note made me proud indeed. Ruby Braff, wherever you are now, I hope you'll know how happy that brief message made me. It encouraged me to feel worthy of writing about the wonderful world of jazz.
I'm sure more Braff albums are sure to come from Arbors and perhaps other record companies.
The newest album on Arbors is one of Braff's best sessions in the past few years. "Watch What Happens ... " was born in a New York City recording studio at a shocking time in U.S history. Ruby joined with pianist Dick Hyman, guitarist Howard Alden, and drummer Jake Hanna. Darryl Sherman contributes vocal work to "Frankly," a tune Braff wrote in collaboration with Jane Jarvis.
"The dates of the album's recording?" you ask. It was Sept. 11 to 13, 2001.
The chaos of the attack on America led to major problems, with several musicians unable to reach the studio. Some shuffling was accomplished and the musicians sat down to produce one of the most musical CDs of 2003. The music sounds careful when called for and solemn when necessary (although it's hard to conceive of anything but beautiful and simply gorgeous jazz with Braff leading the session.
Those days back in those horrible times couldn't keep Braff from producing that singular tone on his cornet. While I've not heard every professional cornet artist, I am sure that no one could begin to approach Braff's voluptuous sound. On the up tempo songs, he handles each note in the charts as a challenge to his talent. Of course, he wins every time.
The album opens with "Handful of Keys," a song written by Richard Maltby Jr. Murray Horowitz and the magnificent Fats Waller. It's dazzling, with Braff's strong sound leading the day. I bet you never head of Irving Berlin's "Slumming on Park Avenue." Listen closely. It's a dandy. The title song, "Watch What Happens ... " comes from the work of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand, neither known for their jazz licks but the song seems perfect for Braff, Hyman, Alden and Hanna. There's plenty more that will make you smile on this excellent CD.
The program includes tunes worthy of hearing; a couple of these tracks show Braff's wise choices. After all, good songs from past or present will never become popular hits unless they are recorded a number of times. Braff's ability to pick a chart shows another part of his unchallenged abilities. The man could do it all and did it for decades while never receiving all the praise he completely deserved.
To those of you not completely aware of Ruby Braff, this would make a fine starting point. Most good record shops will have plenty of Braff albums in their inventory. There's no better time to build your own library by the finest cornet player ever.
Chet Baker SingsI have the sinking feeling that an album called "Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You" (Riverside) isn't being reviewed in a timely manner. If so, I apologize to publicity director Terri Hinte at the Fantasy collection of jazz labels. This album sounds great, benefiting from the superb job of remastering that makes every sound seem to have been recorded last week - in this case back in 1958.
Baker, who played excellent but muted and laid back cornet, possessed a truly sexy-sounding voice that had young ladies suffering from sighs and apt to scream at the end of each song. Those bobby soxers didn't especially like jazz but they certainly knew what a good-looking singer was. Chet Baker filled that bill.
The sad story of how Baker became a drug addict, cutting short a career that could have been both much better and a life that should have extended some years is well known. That's for writers to groan over.
Chet Baker, with a sensibility that appealed to both sexes, never sounded better than in this collection of fine tunes, including "Do It the Hard Way," "I'm Old Fashioned," and "Everything Happens to Me." Those in the audience who remember Baker from the past will certainly find this album a winner. And those youngsters who say they abhor jazz would do themselves a favor by picking up a copy at your friendly record shop.
George Wein Does, TooForgive me, Dear Reader, for indulging in a little bit of reminiscence about the days of my youth. (This column does a lot of that, huh?)
George Wein, who shows he has an interesting and entertaining vocal style, for decades has been the boss and essentially the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival, which eventually went around the one.
Wein, not known to all that many people, possessed a fine singing voice and played jazz piano with an easy and likeable style. His 1955 record album called "Wein, Women and Song and More: George Wein Plays and Sings" came out, received some nice reviews and that seemed to be that.
Backed by some fine musicians (Ruby Braff, Bobby Hackett, Warren Vache Jr., Sammy Margolis), Wein proved to be a concert producer who also could do quite nicely, thank you, as a recording artist.
The choices made are interesting. The album opens with "You Oughta Be in Pictures," a clever little ditty from Hollywood, and such nostalgic songs as "All Too Soon" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."
The musicianship is as expected: just about as good as you get.
Now for a George Wein story. At the time (in the '50s) I lived in Huntington, W.VA. and worked on the afternoon newspaper there (that paper died many years ago). One of my closest friends was Mel Gillispie, a terrific guy who led a dance band that often played arrangements of old Glenn Miller songs. Mel, whose ambitions were mighty then, even purchased an old Greyhound-style bus to take his band around the general area.
When an announcement appeared in area newspapers about the Newport Jazz Festival coming to Cincinnati for a Summer weekend, my friend Mel asked me to travel with him to the Queen City in hopes of winning an audience with producer Wein.
I don't recall how we talked ourselves into an actual meeting with the mighty impressario. Mel, nervous as a bride, was introduced to Wein, who seemed worn and preoccupied. Mel made his very brief spiel and paused. Wein wasn't nice. "What reasons could there be for me to hire you?"
You're right. Wein didn't find any reasons. The Mel Gillispie Orchestra toured the back woods getting bookings at small venues. As far as I know, my old pal Mel taught at West Virginia State College near Charleston for many years. The orchestra continued to perform, but never on the same bills as a major stars of jazz.
Bob Powers always is interested in hearing from record distributors who deal in jazz, rock, folk, and anything that's good. For instructions on getting your album reviewed, contact him at email@example.com.
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