Ruby Braff - cornet; George Barnes - guitar; Wayne Wright - guitar; John Guiffrida - bass
Formed in 1973 and premiering at this Friday evening Carnegie Hall concert (on the same Newport Jazz Festival bill with the Benny Goodman Quartet), the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet was a rich and vital partnership that lasted only two years (they recorded seven albums together between 1973 and 1975). With second guitarist Wayne Wright comping rhythmically in lockstep alongside bassist John Guiffrida's insistent quarter note pulse, the drumless group affected a kind of Hot Club of France vibe with warm-toned cornetist Braff playing Stephane Grappelli to guitarist Barnes' Django Reinhardt. Together they exchanged bristling lines and shared dazzling unisons, putting their own unique stamp on well-worn jazz standards during their appealing June 29th set.
The quartet strikes a swinging accord on the buoyant opener, a brisk reading of Harry Warren's 1932 Tin Pan Alley nugget "Ooh, That Kiss." One can instantly hear how Barnes' driving single note work plumbs the same vibrantly swinging, horn-like vocabulary that guitar great Charlie Christian pioneered (though Barnes actually first recorded on electric guitar in 1938, a full year before Christian joined the Benny Goodman Sextet). Braff matches Barnes stride for stride on this effervescent swinger, creating sparks right out of the gate.
Next up is a Braff ballad, "With Time To Love," that showcases the lyrical side of the cornetist's playing. The quartet runs through a jaunty reading of Cole Porter's breezy "Looking at You," which includes some advanced Django Reinhardt influenced lines from Barnes. Braff, a frequent guest at George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival going back to the inception in 1955, is then showcased on a lovely reading of the plaintive ballad "Old Folks," a tune introduced in 1938 and subsequently covered by a lengthy list of jazz greats. Ruby turns in a heartfelt performance here that is every bit as inspired as his well known rendition of the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin classic, "I Can't Get Started." On an uptempo rendition of "Liza," the bubbly George and Ira Gershwin number originally written in 1929 for Florenz Ziegfield's Show Girl and which later became a Swing era jazz standard, Barnes elicits loud applause for his audacious, rhythmically driving six-string solo. Braff and Barnes also indulge in some quicksilver exchanges on this ebullient number.
They next pull off a beautiful rendition of the lyrical Beatles ballad "Here There and Everywhere" before heading into "Our Love is Here to Stay," the poignant George Gershwin number which features some radiant cornet playing by Braff. After Barnes relates a childhood story about sneaking into the Grand Terrace Café in Chicago to Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five (with pianist Earl Hines) play "Nobody Else But You," the quartet turns in a spirited reading of that old New Orleans jazz staple. Barnes' wisftul "It's Like the Fourth of July" is a leisurely ballad that would later appear on the quartet's last album together, 1975's To Fred Astaire With Love. And they close their set with Braff's swinging homage to his guitar playing partner, "Everything's George," which features the twosome really going for it on some dazzling unison lines while also showcasing Barnes' soulful, string-bending prowess and hard-driving sense of swing.
The guitar great made his first recordings on electric guitar in a 1938 as a musician on the staff of NBC studios in Chicago ("Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame" with Big Bill Broonzy). He made his first recording under his own name in 1940 on the Okeh label ("I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" b/w "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me"). Barnes recorded guitar duets through the '60s with Carl Kress and Bucky Pizzarelli. Following the quartet with Ruby Braff, he made well received albums with violinist Joe Venuti. His last album as a leader, Plays So Good, was recorded for Concord Jazz on April 17, 1977, just four months before his death on September 5, 1977.
Straight-ahead trumpeter-cornetist Ruby Braff, a native Bostonian and longstanding member of George Wein's Newport Jazz All-Stars, could always be counted on to deliver with typically melodic flair and an effeverscent sense of swing. Born in Boston on March 16, 1927, he began working around his hometown in the late 1940s before teaming up with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. After moving to New York in 1953, Braff found work in both Dixieland and mainstream settings while also recording as a leader and with such kindred spirits as trumpeter Buck Clayton, trombonists Vic Dickenson and Urbie Green, and pianist Ellis Larkins. He worked briefly with Benny Goodman in the 1950s and by the 1960s was a fixture at the Newport Jazz Festival. After his quartet with George Barnes broke up in 1975, Braff recorded frequently through the '70s and '80s for Concord Records, often in the company of a new generation of straight-ahead players, including tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and guitarist Howard Alden. His prolific output continued into the '90s for the mainstream New York-based label, Arbors Records. Braff died in his home in Chatham, Massachusetts, on February 10, 2003. (Milkowski)