Ruby Braff,
Variety is the Spice of Braff
(Arbors Records, 2002)

Horn player Ruby Braff died early this year. I first heard one of his recordings in the 1950s. He was already perhaps as well known as he would ever be (not very), and even then he sounded just a little behind the mainstream. Louis Armstrong rather than Dizzy Gillespie was his idol. Braff was startled when the iconoclastic Charlie Parker told him he liked his style. They both admired lyrical playing even though Parker's genius led him to odder sounding harmonies and rhythms.

Braff never did incorporate much of bop into his playing. Instead he built on Armstrong's foundation with a rich, warm tone and a concentration on what is now often called "The Great American Songbook." I was surprised when I next came across him soloing in one of Benny Goodman's big bands. Though he could shine in the style of a hot trumpeter, it wasn't what he liked best. Not long after a short stint with Goodman, he switched to the softer, deeper cornet, and that's what you'll hear him playing in smaller group settings on almost all of the roughly 200 recordings he made over the next near half-century.

I never heard a recording of Braff's that didn't have me smiling and tapping my foot. He had an endless supply of great, mostly familiar old songs and never drifted too far from the melody. As a leader, especially in recent years, he attracted the best musicians of like mind and turned out one fine recording after another. (My most recent search on "Braff" at Amazon turned up 57 entries. Not bad for someone most people never heard of!)

One of my favorite releases is the recent Variety is the Spice of Braff. The clunky title refers to the variety of settings used on the album -- from quintet to big band. A couple of tracks even include a string section. There are excellent solos by, among others, Braff, Tommy Newsom (tenor), Howard Alden (guitar), Bill Charlap (piano) and Kenny Davern (clarinet). Newsom, Doc Severinsen's stand-in on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, also provided some of the arrangements. Tunes include "There's a Small Hotel," "Crazy Rhythm" and, perhaps coincidentally, Benny Goodman's old sign-off, "Memories of You."

Nor can you go wrong with the pair of "New England Song Hound" albums issued over 10 years ago and still in print. Scott Hamilton, tenor, and Bill McKenna, piano, are two of the superb sidemen on these outings.

Ruby Braff didn't push the envelope, so he was often below the radar of critics. He didn't compromise his style to win audiences either, so he was never as popular as he might have been. All he did was perform wonderful tunes with lyrical warmth and affection. I'll miss his playing.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 3 May 2003

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