Having acquired supreme technical authority, in my opinion Ruby Braff has tended to play it safe in recent years with quality material executed with precision and polish. Agreeably smooth enough for the Manhattan cocktail set, his music has lacked the exciting audacity of the formative years.
His recent season at the Pizza Express, however, verified that without subordination of technique Ruby has pared the superficialities and his creative impetus has been revitalised.
From the onset Brian Lemon and his trio (on this occasion Dick Abel, guitar, drummer Stan Bourke and Lennie Bush, bass) offered intuitive, unobtrusive support and, as Ruby glided effortlessly into such ballads as Fooling Myself and You’re My Thrill, he recalled the rhapsodic intimacy of the late Johnny Hodges. Indeed the work of both men invites such adjectives as majestic, sublime, eloquent and positive, and by the economical displacement of notes the caressing rather than embellishing of the written melody is another characteristic common denominator.
Blithe and jaunty, Go Fly A Kite and Pocketful Of Dreams were exhilarating expositions of the cornettist’s range and his impressively flawless use of dynamics – his facility for swinging in all registers and his subtle juxtapositions of high and low notes is perhaps something acquired, albeit subliminally, from his association with Jack Teagarden. The whimsical, mid-tempo ballad treatment of Royal Garden Blues reaffirmed that Ruby’s expressive, distinctive style has reached a new peak.
With Len Skeat on bass, Ruby’s final dates at the club were augmented by Louis Stewart and Scott Hamilton. Probably the most individual guitarist this country has produced, Stewart’s melodic invention and controlled technique were much in evidence on Yesterdays and Falling In Love With Love, whilst his rhythmic subtlety added depth to the rhythm section.
Nancy and Laura emphasised the Ben Webster aspect of Scott Hamilton’s playing, with the phrasing a shade mannered and the vibrato rather exaggerated. Much less self-consciously, Scott pulled out all the stops for All The Things You Are, with passing references to Gene Ammons, Chu Berry and Dick Wilson and provided the perfect foil for Ruby’s uninhibited, extrovert cornet playing on I Want To Be Happy.