Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Fred Astaire with Love: The Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet

This delightful album has always been a personal favorite. Produced in 1975 for RCA Records, it is a very short (30 or so minutes) lp obviously tailored for radio play. The music however is sublime and beautifully played by one of the most unique and outstanding chamber jazz groups of all time.

Co-leaders Ruby Braff (1927-2003) on cornet and George Barnes (1921-77) on guitar were both masters of their instruments and well respected and represented in the traditional and jazz swing world. The group had a short run from 1973-5 and recorded for Chiarascoro, Concord and Improv.

Braff was a very original soloist with roots in Louis and Buck Clayton ,but with his own flowing,imaginative lines enhanced by his exploration of the cornet's lower register. Barnes too had a unique guitar sound and was a master at single string solos. The rhythm guitar of Wayne Wright and bass of Michael Moore gave the two soloists outstanding support and Barnes' harmonized lines with Ruby's cornet gave the group a bigger sound than it's four pieces. The group's arrangements were tasty but gave plenty of blowing room for the co-leaders. This album caught them in prime form-here are some highlights.

Cheek to Cheek- George's weaving riff intro takes us to Ruby with a swinging melodic statement. George continues the riff and harmonizes with Ruby's lead. This trademark gave the quartet a bigger sound than 4 men. Ruby and George playfully swap leads before a fugue-like bridge and return to the riff as a coda.

They Can't Take that Away from Me- Ruby starts with a tasty theme jumping all over the horn's range. George has the bridge and a bluesy full chorus. Ruby's next chorus is full of his great low register and smears. George returns to the lead joined by Ruby and a nice ascending coda a la String of Pearls.

Easter Parade- From Holiday Inn and the film of the same name. Nice interplay between Ruby and George leading to a modulation for the last half and a retard followed by a Louis-ish coda.

Shine on your Shoes- From The Bandwagon. A nice medium swing tempo with a closely voiced first chorus. George picks up Ruby's last lick for his chorus going down low. Ruby's strutting half brings us back to the close voiced coda. A nice track.

I'm Putting All my Eggs in One Basket- Recorded by Louis in 1936 and a favorite of this writer. More tight voicings from the co-leaders, a wailing Ruby going down to low register growls. George's swinging chorus leads to fours with Ruby before a harmonized rideout and a half step jump up to the coda.

They All Laughed- Our co-leaders lead off in close voicing before George takes a swinging spot with humorous touches. Ruby uncorks a lovely, winding solo before the out chorus with a neat Ruby/George voiced run on the coda.

Be Careful, It's my Heart- Also from Holiday Inn. Ruby's great use of the cornet's low register is a highlight on the intro and coda. In between George has a pretty lead picked up by Ruby. Mike Moore's closing bass arcos are a standout.

I'm Old Fashioned- The great Kern classic has George's highly personal sound on the lead picked up by delicate runs by Ruby. Ruby goes up high a la Louis before coming down low for the pretty coda.

Isn't this a Lovely Day?-Ruby and George trade leads with dancing runs around the melody. Ruby uses great rhythmic placement on his notes (another Armstrong hallmark). George gets off a classic, percussive chorus followed by a tasty Braff/Moore duet. Ruby jumps octaves on his horn effortlessly before Moore's acrobatic run to end the clever track.

Top Hat- A clever arrangement using the bridge as an intro. Ruby gets in some nice high register smears and George has a strutting, darting chorus. Ruby's next spot has some latin rhythm back ups and the out chorus returns us to the intro ending on a dissonant chord. A great finale to a classic album.

Despite the short running time of this album, it's a great example of this wonderful chamber group at their best. The solid support of Wright and Moore can't be ignored as they give Ruby and George the freedom to improvise and play off each other with leads, fours and close voicings.
I'm happy to say that the RCA lp is available on CD along with the group's first Chiarascuro lp.
You can go to Amazon and find it on 101 Distributors.

Ruby and George were both too strong willed to co-exist for more than two years but we treasure the wonderful recorded legacy they left us.
To Fred Astaire-With Love is the perfect starting point to re-discover this magical group.