By Spencer, Gordon
The World and I , Vol. 12, No. 3
Braff, Mance, and Golson
With careers beginning in the fifties, three gifted jazz musicians are thrilling today's fans with some very special recordings.
Over the past twenty years or so, we have witnessed the passing of the great pioneers of jazz, from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington--who died about two decades ago--to Ella Fitzgerald last year. Though we mourn their passing, these beloved figures live on through films and audio recordings.
The emergence of compact discs has made available an incredible array of reissued performances by nearly all the legendary creators of jazz. That good fortune is actually due to the development of the LP in the 1950s. The long-playing record made it possible, for the first time, to hear what jazz musicians had always been doing in live performances--playing pieces as long as they wanted to, not confined to the three minutes dictated by 78 revolutions per minute. Equally significant, however, the LP also made it possible for new talent to emerge, side by side with the pioneers, influenced by them or expanding on what they had set down before.
Many of these later-generation jazz virtuosos--whose talents were first revealed when the LP was a fresh, exciting medium--are still with us. Not only is their early work preserved on CD reissues but their current work as well, as they continue to record, yielding an uninterrupted wellspring of pleasure.
Cornetist Ruby Braff is one of these enduring delights. So are pianist Junior Mance and saxophonist Benny Golson. All three first showed their special talents in the 1950s, and all have continued to flourish, inspire, and entertain ever since.
Fresh Takes on Classics
By the time Braff started getting the praise his talent merited, the evolution of jazz had spun off into what was called hard bop, derived from its brother bop, whose daddy had been swing, and whose granddaddy had started the family with what came to be known as Dixieland. Hard bop, being the newest thing, was the hot record-seller.
Now in reality, such categories are after-the-fact definitions of trends. Jazz musicians will tell you that when they start their careers they usually don't choose to play in a certain style or category of jazz, and they don't do something simply because it's popular. Jazz is first and foremost a reflection of what the artists feel about the music and about themselves. The style they play in shows their affinities--what has influenced and inspired them. They may play a mixture of styles. Some of the great innovators started by playing one style before developing a newer one. Benny Goodman's first records were Dixieland; John Coltrane started his career playing in tightly knit big bands.
Braff didn't pat his feet to the trend of the day, a choice rare among jazz musicians of his generation. He embraced past conceptions: His fresh, lyrical ideas came out of swing and Dixieland. While the hard-boppers astonished listeners with intricate cascades of notes and pounding rhythms, often in their own tunes, Braff was exploring the familiar harmonies of songs older than he was. And he added nuance to his melodies by studying the words to the songs and creating a sense of singing while he played.
He started playing in 1938 when he was eleven. "I was hearing records that lasted two and half minutes where marvelous artists could say great things in four bars," he commented some years ago. Today he still cherishes those examples of concentrated economy. "If they could make that much music in that short a time, shouldn't you be striving to play like that?" he asked.
Listen to Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman Play Nice Tunes (Arbors Records ARCD 19141), recorded in the summer of 1994 and issued in October of last year. The fourteen selections by the cornet and piano duo average around four minutes each. Or find multiple pleasures in two sextet recordings from 1991 that include tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, guitarist Howard Alden, and pianist Dave McKenna, along with bassist Frank Tate and drummer Alan Dawson. …