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EXPLORING MUSIC: A Striking Tribute - Manhattan Jazz

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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Spencer Bennett

Here's to two veteran musicians who never lost sight of the joy of playing for and with each other while, incidental­ly, giving us pleasure as well.


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Duos are rare in the history of jazz. I can think of only a handful, including the one mentioned by Dick Hyman in the liner notes to this album: a 1928 duet between Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong for Armstrong's "Weatherbird." It is an appropriate reference, for the musical relationship between cometist Braff and pianist Hyman works as much to their mutual advantage as did that much earlier arrangement between Hines and Armstrong.

Armstrong by 1928 had reached full stride, having perfected his swooping style, open full vibrato, and conversa­tional melodic voice. Hines, on the other hand, had freed himself from the limita­tions of stride piano, that is bass on the one-beat complemented by chord on the two-beat. He was inclined to try the sweeping phrases usually associated with brass in his right hand and play a more suggestively implicit series of rhythms in the left. The result of this duo was experimental narrative rather than piano accompaniment of a cornet solo.

In this, the present album, lies a strik­ing tribute to those two jazz forefathers. Ruby Braff is about as direct a musical descendent of Louis Armstrong as you will find on the present jazz scene. It has been fashionable in recent years to pay lip homage to Armstrong as the father of the inventive jazz line and dismiss his contribution as a mother lode that has been played out. Braff never believed it and has always kept his counsel as a child of the master (not always to his commercial advantage in the faddish world of jazz taste). But we have come full circle and what might have sound­ed dated in the avant garde '70s never in fact was.

A couple examples will suffice. You cannot go much further back than "Jeepers Creepers" for an Armstrong tune with a short line that says it all with its jumping intervals and slightly meditative bridge. But Hyman and Braff treat it as though hearing it for the first time. Braff begins with a twisting open treatment that literally creates air pockets of sound. When his turn comes to solo he fools around with the dynamics of a low register cello like a series of slurs, only to descend upon us with a high-pitched sotto voce when we least expect it.

Hyman makes that left hand work overtime with a bass line, now single and now chorded, punctuated with jum­py little breaks; yet he offers Braff right­hand melodies to chew on when it comes time for them to trade four-bar solos with each other. The dynamic in­terplay between these two gives pause. They move in and out of pianissimo and forte shadowing to completely transform the character of the melody a dozen times over.

These two stick close to traditional standards, and that is no mistake. For one thing it clues us in to just what a humorous vehicle jazz can be. The Harold Arlen medley is a case in point. "The Man That Got Away" gets the delicately hued treatment a blues deserves, but when it is juxtaposed against "If I Only Had a Brain" the idea of paradox takes on new meaning. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is somewhere between light nostalgia and lament but serves here as a transition to a reiteration of the first song, which now has a less hopeless statement in the con­text of the other two.

Here's to two veteran musicians who never lost sight of the joy of playing for and with each other while, incidental­ly, giving us pleasure as well.

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