Ruby Braff - cornet; Sir Charles Thompson - piano; Slam Stewart - bass; Ben Riley - drums; Special guests:; Ben Webster - tenor sax; Buck Clayton - trumpet; Al Grey - trombone
Straightahead cornetist Ruby Braff, a native Bostonian and longstanding member of George Wein's Newport Jazz All-Stars, could always be counted on to turn in an effervescent, swinging set of music. At the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival, Braff delivered with typically melodic flair, accompanied by a stellar rhythm section and featuring three special guests who elevated the proceedings a notch or two. The spirited interactions and swinging energy of this all-star ensemble connected with the Sunday evening crowd at Newport, setting a lively, upbeat tone for the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet that followed their set.
Braff's quartet, featuring Sir Charles Thompson on piano, Ben Riley on drums and another Newport stalwart, Slam Stewart, on bass, opens with the bouyantly swinging "Sunday," with the cornetist nonchalantly brandishing some pungent high note work on his colorful solo. Pianist Thompson contributes a bristling solo before Braff returns to engage in some heated exchanges of eights with drummer Riley before reprising the toe-tapping melody. Next up, Braff reveals the considerable influence of trumpet king Louis Armstrong on his expressive reading of the chestnut "Mean to Me." Thompson's cascading piano solo here is strictly old school while bassist Stewart offers one of his patented bowed bass solos (in which he simultaneously scats along in unison, a technique he developed in the late 1930s as part of the Slim & Slam duo with guitarist-entertainer Slim Gaillard). Braff's animated exchanges of eights with Stewart here are a highlight of the engaging piece.
The quartet is joined by the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, a former star soloist during the '30s and early '40s with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. On their uptempo swinging rendition of "Lover Come Back To Me," the tenor giant plays cat-and-mouse on the frontline with the cornetist while running down the familiar melody. Webster then breaks off from the prescribed melody and takes his time developing a robust-toned solo over the tune's chord changes. Braff responds on his own solo by bobbing and weaving, tentatively jabbing and scoring occasional direct hits with his cornet, like a skilled prize fighter doing battle in the ring. Thompson turns in a rhythmically charged piano solo before Webster and Braff return for some rapid-fire exchanges of eights before taking the tune out.
The crew (minus Braff) is joined by former Basie-ites, Al Grey on trombone and Buck Clayton on trumpet for an exhilarating rendition of "Take the A Train," the Billy Stayhorn composition popularized by Ellington's orchestra. After running through the familiar head of the tune, Grey solos first, sly inserting a quote from Ellington's "Cotton Tail" into the fabric of his exuberant improvisation. Clayton follows with a dazzling solo on this Ellington staple that is bristling with technical virtuosity while remaining indelibly tied to a bluesy swing feel. Webster follows with a raspy tone on his forceful solo as he digs in with conviction, then Thompson turns in a glistening piano solo and Riley adds a dynamic, unaccompanied drum solo before the whole ensemble returns to the familiar theme, climaxing in a rousing finale.
Born in Boston on March 16, 1927, Braff began working around his hometown in the late 1940s before teaming up with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (another Newport Jazz All-Star regular from the outset of the festival). 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 '60s was a fixture at the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1973, Braff formed a quartet with guitarist George Barnes that gained popularity. Through the '70s and '80s, he recorded frequently 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 in the '90s for the mainstream New York-based label, Arbors Records. Braff died in his home in Chatham, Massachusetts on February 10, 2003. (Milkowski)