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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Jazz U.K. Column - August 2000

Piano fans in New York had a holiday recently when Tommy Flanagan and Bill Charlap each did a week with their trios at the Jazz Standard. On the night I was there, Tommy had pared down his prodigious technique to a more economical style (not that he was ever prolix), making more use than usual of space and chorded episodes than has been his wont. Hi splaying makes you "read between the lines" , and over the course of his set, Flanagan imparted a symphony's worth of music. Charlap the younger is unique among his generation for his encyclopedic knowledge of tunes and his absorption of Jimmy Rowles, Tatum and other masters, while being completely contemporary.

Ruby Braff exhibited brilliance during the last week of July in and around New York City. Health problems have kept Braff largely home for the past year (he lives in Cape Cod, several hours north of New York City) and only a steel determinism made it possible for him to confront several recording sessions and then a night in a jazz club. The record dates featured Ruby with a string quartet, small to mid-sized bands, and with a rhythm section and guest vocalist Daryl Sherman. The session I heard was with 5 reeds, trombone, 5 rhythm (Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden) and Ruby, who was tremendously inspired by pianist Bill Charlap. They did an extended "Jumpin' at The Woodside" that had, as Ruby desired, the feel of the best of those Buck Clayton Jam Sessions of the '50s. But the real fireworks occurred a few days later when Ruby played his first gig in front of an audience in over a year. The setting was Shanghai Jazz, a small restaurant in New Jersey. Ben Aronov played piano, Bucky was on guitar and the bassist was John Beal. From the very first note, it was clear that this would be a night to remember. One glorious phrase followed another, all bearing Braff's personal imprimatur. The highlight came when Ruby honored a request from his long-time friend Dan Morgenstern for Yesterdays. I have never heard sounds like that come from a brass instrument before. Some were reminiscent of the eccentric vibrations Lester Young coaxed from his tenor, while others brought Rex Stewart to mind, but these associations only serve to give you an idea of their originality, for they sounded like no one but Mr. Braff. Through the use of half-valves, pointing his bell towards the piano leg and his own brain waves, he constructed nothing less than a masterpiece, and the entire audience knew it, too. It was one of those magical moments of spontaneity that only jazz brings.

Out of the miasma of recent jazz books, two have been the topic of much discussion here. One is the superb coffee-table (also suitable for tea I'm sure) book revolving around the famous Esquire photo that spawned Jean Bach's award-winning documentary, "A Great Day In Harlem." The book, The Great Jazz Day is chock-a-block with rare photos taken before and after the famous one, and with chapters (mostly reprints) on related topics by Dan Morgenstern, Ralph Ellison, Whitney Balliett and Gary Giddins.The other book is Stanley Crouch's first novel, Don't The Moon Look Lonesome. It tells the story of a white jazz singer, Carla, and her black tenor saxophone-playing boyfriend, Maxwell. It has received mixed reviews, but captures the essence of what goes on on some bandstands and in some jazz clubs more clearly than in anything this scribe has ever read. Crouch goes on at great length about many of the same topics he has addressed in his award-winning essays, and although they sometimes strain the narrative's flow, the sheer humanity contained in this promethean effort are well worth the time. Conversely, recent biographies of Charles Mingus and Clifford Brown reflect the sad fact that jazz musicians don't seem to attract the same level of scholarship given to their classical counterparts. To many serious readers, John Chilton remains tops in the field and his Roy Eldridge book is eagerly awaited.