Tag Archives: Bob Brookmeyer

HOD O’BRIEN, WRITER

Hod O'Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Hod O’Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Pianist Hod O’Brien is a master of melodic improvisations.  If you missed his July 2015 gig at Mezzrow with bassist Ray Drummond, the evidence is here.

But here’s the beautiful part.  Some jazz musicians keep words at a distance and their expressiveness comes out through the keyboard, the brass tubing, and so on.  But Hod has written a pointed, light-hearted memoir that operates the way he plays.  His words seem simple, his constructions are never ornate, but he gets to the heart of things and leaves the reader enlightened, renewed.

HOD BOOK

The first thing to say about this book is how pleased I am to read a book by someone who, like Hod, has been an active part of jazz for six decades.  It’s not “as told to,” nor is it embellished by a jazz scholar as a posthumous tribute.  Here is part of  Hod’s preface, which reveals much about his character:

“This book is not intended to be a strictly biographical text, but, rather a collection of funny, little incidents and stories I’ve witnessed and heard along my way, on my path as a freelance jazz musician over the past 60 years of my professional life.

It’s intended mostly for fans of mine, whomever and wherever you all are, and fellow musicians, who might be interested in hearing a little bit more about me from another perspective, rather than from just my music and recordings alone. . . . The jazz community is a small, but hip part of the world, of which I’m happy and proud to be a member, and to whom I wish to express my deep gratitude — to those of you in it and interested in my work.”

I was immediately struck by Hod’s self-description as “happy and proud,” and the book bears him out.  “Proud” doesn’t mean immodest — in fact, Hod constantly seems delighted and amazed at the musicians he’s gotten to play with, but his happiness is a great and reassuring undercurrent in the book.  (When was the last time you met someone deeply nourished by his or her work?  Hod is that person.)

His  book moves quickly: at the start he is a child picking out one-finger melodies on the piano, learning boogie-woogie, hearing JATP and bebop recordings; a few pages later it is 1955 and he filling in for Randy Weston at a gig in Massachusetts, hearing Pepper Adams, getting threatened by Charles Mingus, meeting and playing with Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer.  Oscar Pettiford (called “Pet” by Thad Jones) gets a longer portrait.  The O.P. portrait is so good that I won’t spoil it, but it has cameo appearances by Bill Evans and Paul Chambers, Chet Baker, and Philly Joe Jones.  In case you are realizing that Hod has managed to play with or hear or meet many jazz luminaries in the past sixty years, that alone is reason to buy the book.  There’s J.R. Monterose and a defective piano, a compromised Wilbur Ware, friendliness from Max Roach and Arthur Taylor.

The book (and Hod’s life) takes a surprising turn with Hod losing interest in his jazz career, studying with Charles Wuorinen, and delving into physics, higher mathematics, and early computer programming.  But a reunion with his old friend Roswell Rudd moves him back to performance and the club scene.

Interruption: for those of you who can only read about doomed heroic figures, victims, or the chronically self-destructive, this is not such a book.  Hod has setbacks but makes friends and makes music; he marries the fine singer Stephanie Nakasian, and they remain happily married, with a singer in the family, daughter Veronica Swift (born in 1994) — who just won second place in the Thelonious Monk jazz competition.  Now back to our regularly scheduled narrative.

Hod’s experiences as a clubowner are somewhere between surreal, hilarious, and sad — but his reminiscences of Sonny Greer (and a birthday gift), Joe Puma, Chuck Wayne, Al Haig, Stan Getz, and the little East Side club called Gregory’s (which I remember although I didn’t see Hod there).  There’s  Hod’s playing a set with Dizzy, Ornette, Ed Blackwell, and Teddy Kotick . . . and much more, including more than fifty photographs, a discography, and a list of Hod’s compositions: very nicely done at 122 pages.

You can buy it here — and you can also find out more about Hod . . . such as his return to Mezzrow on March 18-19, 2016. But until then, you can entertain yourself with a copy of HAVE PIANO . . . WILL SWING! — a book that surely lives up to its title.

May your happiness increase!

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PERFECTLY CRAFTED: “PLAYGROUND” by the UNACCOUNTED FOUR

I am delighted to share with you the debut CD of an inspired quartet — the Unaccounted Four — a disc called (appropriately) PLAYGROUND, where the arranged passages are as brilliant as the improvisations, and the two kinds of expression dance beautifully through the disc.

playground_front

Menno plays cornet, wrote the arrangements, and composed three originals; David plays clarinet and tenor saxophone; Martien plays guitar; Joep is on string bass; Harrie ven de Woort plays the pianola on the closing track, a brief EXACTLY LIKE YOU.  The disc was recorded at the PIanola Museum in Amsterdam on four days in May 2014 — recorded superbly by bassist Joep.

The repertoire is a well-stirred offering of “classic” traditional jazz repertoire: STUMBLING, CHARLESTON, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUBILEE, EXACTLY LIKE YOU; beautiful pop songs: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, JEANNINE (I DREAM OF LILAC TIME), ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM, LULLABY OF THE LEAVES; originals: WHAT THE FUGUE, UNGUJA, PLAYGROUND; unusual works by famous composers: Ellington’s REFLECTIONS IN D; Bechet’s LE VIEUX BATEAU; and Ravel’s SLEEPING BEAUTY.  Obviously this is a quartet with an imaginative reach.

A musical sample — the Four performing JUBILEE and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

Here is Menno’s own note to the CD:

A few years ago, I wanted to have my own jazz quartet to play what is known as “classic jazz.” Besides being nice to listen to, I intended the quartet to be versatile, convenient and different. That is why I bypassed the usual format of horn + piano trio. Our instrumentation of two horns, guitar and bass allows for varied tone colors. The venues where we play don’t need to rent a piano, and we don’t have to help the drummer carry his equipment from the car. As for versatility, David Lukacs, Merien Oster and Joep Lumeij are excellent readers and improvisers. They are also great company to hang out with (convenience again).

Our repertoire dates from the 1920s and 30s. The earliest piece is the adaptation of Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (1912); the latest is Ellington’s Reflections in D (1953), not counting my own tunes. While writing the charts, I chose to frame the familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes in a new setting, rather than following the original recordings. So, for better or worse, the Unaccounted Four sounds like no other band. I promise you will still recognize the melodies, though!

The recording was made at the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam by Joep Lumeij with only two microphones. Minimal editing and postprocessing was done (or indeed possible).

On the last track, Harrie van de Voort operated a pianola which belted out Exactly Like You while we joined in. It is the only completely improvised performance on this disc. Autumn in New York is at the other end of the spectrum with every note written out.

I hope you will enjoy the Unaccounted Four’s particular brand of chamber jazz.

Menno’s statement that the Unaccounted Four “sounds like no other band” is quite true.  If I heard them on the radio or on a Blindfold Test, I might not immediately recognize the players, but I wouldn’t mistake the band for anyone else. I think my response would be, “My goodness, that’s marvelous.  What or whom IS that?”

Some listeners may wonder, “If it doesn’t sound like any other band, will I like it?”  Fear not.  One could put the Four in the same league as the Braff-Barnes quartet at their most introspective, or the Brookmeyer-Jim Hall TRADITIONALISM REVISITED.  I think of the recordings Frankie Newton made with Mary Lou Williams, or I envision a more contemplative version of the 1938 Kansas City Six or the Kansas City Four.

But here the CD’s title, PLAYGROUND, is particularly apt. Imagine the entire history of melodic, swinging jazz as a large grassy field.  Over there, Bobby Hackett and Shorty Baker are talking about mouthpieces; in another corner, Lester Young, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis are lying on their backs staring at the sky.  Billy Strayhorn and Claude Thornhill are admiring blades of grass; Frank Trumbauer is introducing Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang to Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford; Tony Fruscella and Brew Moore are laughing at something witty Count Basie has said. Someone is humming ROYAL GARDEN BLUES at a medium tempo; another is whistling a solo from the Birth of the Cool sides.

You can continue this game at your leisure (it is good for insomniacs and people on long auto trips) but its whimsical nature explains PLAYGROUND’s particular sweet thoughtful appeal.

It is music to be savored: translucent yet dense tone-paintings, each three or four-minute musical interlude complete in itself, subtle, multi-layered, full of shadings and shifts.  The playing throughout is precise without being mannered, exuberant when needed but never loud — and happily quiet at other times. Impressionism rather than pugilism, although the result is warmly emotional.

Some CDs I immediately embrace, absorb, and apparently digest: I know their depths in a few hearings.  With PLAYGROUND, I’ve listened to it more than a half-dozen times, and each time I hear new aspects; it has the quiet resonance of a book of short stories, which one can keep rereading without ever being bored.

For me, it offers some of the most satisfying listening experiences I have had of late.

The CD can be downloaded or purchased from CDBaby, downloaded from iTunes or Amazon; or one can visit Menno’s own site here, listen to sound samples, and purchase the music from him.

Enjoy the PLAYGROUND.  You have spacious time to explore it.

May your happiness increase!

EVERY DREAM GONE: WILLARD ROBISON AND JACK TEAGARDEN

DON'T SMOKE IN BED

I have been thinking about Willard Robison a good deal the past few days.  For good reason, mind you: I was asked to write some notes for a forthcoming release on the Nif Nuf label of trumpeter Bob Barnard and friends playing Robison.  Vocals of a most beautiful kind by Bob’s niece Rebecca; other musicians including Jo Stevenson and Andrew Swann.

I don’t know enough about Robison’s life to say much about it, but his beautiful intriguing music seems to divide into the Inspirational — WAKE UP CHILLUN, WAKE UP; ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO; TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the Affectionate — LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN, OLD FOLKS, and the Desolate / Lonely — ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM, LONELY ACRES IN THE WEST, A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and his last great hit, DON’T SMOKE IN BED — circa 1948, and a success for Peggy Lee (whose version strikes me as too light-hearted for the song’s depths).

Matt Munisteri, who has made a deep study of Robison’s music as well as a beautiful CD of it, could add more titles to my list, but I am not intending to be comprehensive at the moment.  Details of his strikingly fine CD here.

I know nothing of Robison’s emotional or marital life.  I know he had great success in the Twenties and early Thirties, and he lived into his early seventies, but there is a deep strain of nearly hopeless melancholy in his work.

Where other writers were incessantly writing about the possibilities of Romance (think, for instance, of PENTHOUSE SERENADE), Robison is drawn to the emptied, the vacant, the mournfulness of a house when one’s partner has left.  (Yes, there was the non-Robison 1931 song IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, where the singer sees the belongings (s)he and spouse have so cherished up for sale in a window — but that singer is able to say, “Let’s get back together again and we’ll reconstruct that dream.”)

Robison’s songs — at least these two — sound as if the shared hopes have been shattered.  I know that Larry Conley wrote the lyrics for COTTAGE, but I think the despair is not only Conley’s.

Here, although at a jaunty tempo, is Robison himself singing COTTAGE, with verse, in 1930.  Be it ever so humble, there’s no home any more:

“Our little dream castle / With everything gone” is a definite way to begin a song — no optimistic extenuation possible.  The tempo is far from dirgelike, and in 2013 we are long familiar with the beautiful ballad medley, but the lyrics remind us that what we are witnessing in the empty cottage is a death — not the death of a person, but the death of hope and love as embodied in a marriage.

Conley knew something either about domestic agriculture or had read a good deal of English poetry to draw on the images of lawns turned to hay, roses overrun by weeds — the untended garden as sign of a broken compact, an irreparable rip in the fabric of loving order. And the brief bridge presents a terrifying reality, where the singer can see the face of the absent spouse in every window but no such welcome is possible as the singer approaches the actual, desolate dwelling.

Robison was a light-voiced, gentle singer.  I leave it to his friend Jack Teagarden to record the absolutely definitive version of this song in 1962.  (I find the beautiful arrangements by Russ Case and Bob Brookmeyer slightly busy but so intuitively perceptive — although I would have liked to hear Jack backed only by Ellis Larkins or Jimmy Rowles):

And COTTAGE is emotionally less powerful than the song that has struck me at the center of my being ever since I heard Jack’s recording of it, DON’T SMOKE IN BED:

I do not know the circumstances that led up to the writing of that song.  With thoughts of a recent posting connected to Marion Harris on my mind, whose death echoed the song’s title — I am sure that more than one spouse / partner told the other, “For God’s sake, don’t do that!  You’ll kill yourself if you do that!”  But DON’T SMOKE IN BED is about so much more than fire safety.

Whether you hear the song as the expression of the woman who leaves the note or the man who tells us of the event, it is absolutely heart-stopping as a record of a long-time marriage that has failed so irrevocably that no recourse is possible except for one partner leaving while the other is asleep.

And what hits so hard is that the woman (let us say) who is telling her husband, “I am gone.  Do not try to follow me, look for me, find me.  I am leaving behind ‘my old wedding ring,’ a severing more decisive than any divorce proceeding — can speak to her obliviously sleeping spouse with colloquial rueful tenderness: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed,” as if she were simultaneously concerned about his welfare while finding it impossible to live with him, look out for him, take care of him one day more.

The singer calls the sleeper, “old sleepy head,” which could be read as deeply affectionate at best, slightly mocking at worst — but it is a sobriquet more tender than many of us have heard in arguments. But what follows is — although casually stated — final: “I’m packing you in / Like I said,” which says that this is not a single marital argument that has escalated but the end of a long series of them, where the possibility of one partner leaving has often been discussed.

Did Robison know such an incident?  Did one of his friends, male or female, walk away from a relationship with such power and such regret, perhaps leaving a note and a ring?  Did some spouse — playfully or with great seriousness — say, “One day you’re going to wake up and I’ll be gone.  And when that happens, I hope you’ll stop smoking in bed.  I can’t stand you, but I don’t want you burned to death.”  Did someone wake up to find his / her partner gone?  Was it Robison himself?

I don’t know.

But I do not think anyone writes such a song without having personal experience — heard or lived-through — to base it on.

And I know that it is bad scholarship (even though I am thirty years’ out of graduate school) to ascribe biographical details to art.  But.  By 1962 Jack Teagarden was happily married — but with the wreckage of several marriages behind him.  Is it too much to hear world-weariness, despair, and knowledge in his voice?  I think not.

The way Teagarden arches his voice to deliver “Don’t look for me,” part cry, part croon, suggests a sorrowing song underneath this performance that the notes themselves cannot notate or contain — echoed by the way, glorious and anguished, that Don Goldie’s trumpet rises at the end of his solo.

Bless Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Don Goldie, Willard Robison, and Larry Conley for giving us such dramatic experiences — passages through sorrow and loss in the form of music that make us shiver with sadness and recognition.

“With these few goodbye-words . . . . the end of our story is told on the door.”

May your happiness increase. 

EMMETT BERRY’S BUESCHER TRUMPET, 1952

This Buescher trumpet, the advertisement tells us, is the model Emmett Berry plays with Johnny Hodges.  For tremendous power and range, which Mr. Berry would have had on any horn.

Emmett Berry came from the tradition of individualistic players — with an intense near-ferocity no matter what the context . . . with Fletcher or Horace Henderson, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Edmond Hall, Bennie Morton, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Thomas, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Harry Carney, Johnny Guarneri, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Gerald Wilson, Betty Roche, Helen Humes, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Sears,Al Hibbler, Lem Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, Slim Gaillard, John Simmons, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett, Sammy Price, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Lawrence Brown, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, Art Farmer, Claude Hopkins, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Andy Gibson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Baker, Chu Berry, Earl Hines, Joe Williams.  On Keynote he was the third trumpet player with Joe Thomas and Roy Eldridge.  He was in the trumpet section for a Miles Davis and Gil Evans session.

Between 1937 and 1967, he seems to have been active on gigs and in the recording studio, even if some of that work had him playing second trumpet to Buck Clayton or as part of the brass section behind a singer.  But this record of activity says to me that various people (Harry Lim, John Hammond, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate) valued him as a powerful, reliable, creative player — someone who could swing, improvise, blend with a section, sight-read music the first time he saw it.

Buck Clayton’s story of Berry whacking Jimmy Witherspoon in the head with his trumpet when Spoon had been particularly out of line suggests that Berry was not someone to be trifled with, and his phrasing does suggest an expert boxer and dangerous counterpuncher.

But no one seems to have interviewed him during his playing career, and I have it in my memory (true?) that he suffered some sort of late-life mental collapse and retired from music.  (What does anyone know of him in the years from 1967 to 1993?)

His sound– so vehement — remains in my ears.  On the early Clef sessions with Hodges, on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, backing Rushing on Vanguard — unmistakable.

Here’s “a little good blues” with Earle Warren, Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey, and Oliver Jackson, from 1961:

Berry doesn’t take enough space, and his vehemence is hinted at rather than fully released, but his sound and physical presence are fully evident.

He’s someone I miss.

May your happiness increase.

LITTLE WONDERS at AMOEBA MUSIC (The Next Chapter)

August 14, 2012.  Amoeba Music.  1855 Haight Street, San Francisco.

Flash!  Money can’t buy happiness, but money can buy the music that creates it.

Six vinyl records = $15.14.

JOE SULLIVAN: NEW SOLOS BY AN OLD MASTER (Riverside, 1953)

RAY SKJELBRED / HAL SMITH: STOMPIN’ EM DOWN (Stomp Off, 1985)

HARRY JAMES: DOUBLE DIXIE (MGM, 1962)

BUTCH THOMPSON / MIKE DUFFY / HAL SMITH: LITTLE WONDER (Triangle Jazz, 1987)

AL “JAZZBO” COLLINS: SWINGING AT THE OPERA (Everest, 1960)

THE SAINTS AND SINNERS “CATCH FIRE” (Seeco, 1960)

Explication du texte herewith.

The Sullivan is a famous record — I believe I had the music in poorer sound on a Classics CD, but the sentimental value of this disc in its crinkly wax-paper inner sleeve was something I chose not to resist.  And Sullivan’s sweet violence at the keyboard — filling A ROOM WITH A VIEW with ferocious right-hand splashes and mad Waller right-hand tinkling ornamentations — continues to astonish.  And if that weren’t enough, the disc is NON BREAKABLE, LONG PLAYING MICROGROOVE, HI FI.  What more could I ask for?

Ray Skjelbred deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, and Hal Smith’s intuitive empathy is splendid.  All I will say about STOMPIN’ ‘EM DOWN is that the duo’s performance of LOVE ME TONIGHT is another delightful version of sweet violence, honoring Bing Crosby and Earl Hines simultaneously.

I haven’t heard a note of DOUBLE DIXIE yet, but it is an intriguing experiment: the whole James band of the time, with Willie Smith and Buddy Rich, surrounding the “Dixie Five” of James, Dick Cathcart, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock, Ray Sims.  How could I pass up a record that had TWO DEUCES on it, and all the arrangements by Matlock?

On my most recent trip to Amoeba Berkeley, I bought a Prairie Home Companion lp featuring the Butch Thompson Trio with Red Maddock on drums — and it has been giving a great deal of pleasure, both now in the present moment and reminding me of my 1981 self, listening to PHC live and waiting for those trio sessions.  This trio recording with Butch, Mike, and Hal is going to be a treat . . . a special little pleasure was in looking at the back-cover photograph of the trio, smiling . . . and reading that the photographer was none other than our friend and wondrous singer Becky Kilgore.

For me, a little “hipsterness” goes a long way, but Al “Jazzbo” Collins always had good taste.  What could be wrong with a big band recording of melodies from famous operas — when the band includes as soloists Harry Edison, Phil Woods, and Bob Brookmeyer . . . when the rhythm section is Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith, Joe Benjamin (Milt must have had a conflict that day), and Jo Jones?  Plus Harvey Phillips and Eddie Costa, arrangements by Fred Karlin, the whole thing supervised by Raymond Scott.  Can’t beat that!

Any record by the SAINTS AND SINNERS is rare these days — a compact group co-led by Red Richards and Vic Dickenson, it featured Norm Murphy or Herman Autrey, trumpet; Joe Barifaldi or Rudy Powell, reeds, and a solid rhythm section (this issue has Barrett Deems, drums).  I remember hearing Vic play TEACH ME TONIGHT from a program Ed Beach did on the S&S and so this was a superb find.  “My heart stood still,” to quote Larry Hart.

Now, there is no hidden ideology here about the goodness of vinyl over any other medium of sound reproduction; I amnot urging anyone to buy a turntable or to begin collecting more stuff, to quote George Carlin.  But there are Wonders out there for those who seek them!

P.S.  And as an added bonus, the cheerful young woman behind the counter had family that had grown up on Long Island and had gone to the high school I had graduated from when buying records was what you did.  The young woman had made it to San Francisco by way of Brooklyn, and she had wonderful instincts: when I said, in closing, “May your happiness increase,” she answered immediately, “Thank you very much!  You, too!”

May your happiness increase.

BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY and DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES

THIS JUST IN (Sept. 8, 2012): BORN TO PLAY is available at a special discount price.  I feel honored — this is the first official JAZZ LIVES promotional code!

JAZZ LIVES SPECIAL PRICE: Available directly from the publisher with 25% discount ($71.25 + $5.00 shipping): https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810882645 and enter special Jazz Lives promotion code in shopping cart: 7M12BTPRB

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, and it’s even better than I anticipated.  It is the latest volume in the Scarecrow Press “Studies in Jazz” series, nearly 750 pages of information about the late cornetist.

Its author, Thomas P. Hustad, knew Ruby, spoke with him, and had Ruby’s full cooperation and enthusiastic advocacy.  Although the book isn’t a biography, nearly every page offers a deeper understanding of Ruby, musician and personality, and the contexts within which he operated.

Ruby would have been a challenging subject for a typical biography.  For one thing, although jazz musicians seem to lead unusual lives (nocturnal rather than diurnal hours, for one thing) they take their work with the utmost seriousness, and their daily responsibilities are not much different from ours.  A diary of what Ruby, for instance, accomplished when the horn was not up to his lips, might not be particularly revealing.  And Ruby’s strong, often volatile personality might have led a book astray into the darker realms of pathobiography: a chronological unfolding of the many times Ruby said exactly what was on his mind with devastating results would grow wearying quickly, and would leave even the most sympathetic reader with a sour impression.

No, Ruby wanted to be remembered for his music, and Tom honored that request.  So there is no psychoanalysis here, in an attempt to explore why Ruby could be so mercurial — generous and sweet-natured to some, vocal in defense of his friends, furious at injustice, fiercely angry without much apparent provocation otherwise.  True, the reader who peruses this book for tales of inexplicably bad behavior will find some, but BORN TO PLAY offers so much more.

Its purpose is to celebrate and document Ruby’s playing and recording over more than half a century.  What a body of recordings he left us!  From the earliest Boston broadcasts in 1949 to his final August 2002 appearance in Scotland with Scott Hamilton (happily available on an Arbors Records 2-CD set), Ruby played alongside the greatest names in jazz history.

Without looking at the book, I think of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna, Freddie Green, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Dick Hafer, Scott Hamilton, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Dick Hyman, Teddi King, Lee Wiley, Ellis Larkins, Mel Powell, Oscar Pettiford, George Wein, George Barnes, Michael Moore, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Howard Alden, Frank Tate, Jack Lesberg, John Bunch, Sir Charles Thompson, Trummy Young, Bob Wilber, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dan Barrett, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, Lawrence Brown, Ernie Caceres, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing, Urbie Green.

BORN TO PLAY is more than a straightforward discographical listing of Ruby’s issued recordings (although even there I found surprises: Ruby’s sessions with the Weavers, a final unissued Vanguard session, work with Larry Adler, Lenny Solomon, and others).  From his earliest appearances, listeners noticed that Mr. Braff was something special.  Jazz critics made much of him as an “anachronism,” someone whose style came out of Louis Armstrong rather than Miles Davis, but such assessments missed the point.

Ruby was one of the great romantics and improvising dramatists: he could take the most familiar melody and find new lyricism in it, singing it out as if he had become Fred Astaire or Judy Garland or Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS rather than “a saloon entertainer with a bit of tin in his hand.”  Ruby’s playing touches some hidden impulses in us — our need to express emotions without holding back — but his wasn’t the “barbaric yawp,” but quiet intensity with many surprises on the way.

His admirers (among whom I count myself) paid tribute to their hero by recording his performances whenever possible — the chronicle of private recordings begins in 1949 and continues to the end.  Those private recordings are  more than tantalizing: Ruby’s encounters with Louis, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Buddy Rich, Danny Moss, Sidney Catlett, Benny Carter . . .as well as his day-to-day gigs with musicians both famous and little-known across the globe.

One of the surprises in this book is that Ruby worked so often: before he became known for his singular approach to melodic improvisation, he was a diligently gigging musician.  (In print, Ruby sometimes complained about his inability to find congenial work: these listings suggest that aside from some early stretches where it was difficult to get gigs, he was well-employed.)

BORN TO PLAY also contains rare and unseen photographs, and the text is interspersed with entertaining stories: Nat Pierce and the sardine cans, Benny Goodman and the staircase, and more.

What this book reminds us of is the masterful work of an artist performing at the highest level in many contexts for an amazing length of time . . . all the more remarkable when you recall that Ruby suffered from emphysema as early as 1980.  Without turning his saga into a formulaic one of the heroic artist suffering through disabling illnesses, Hustad subtly suggests that we should admire Ruby much more for his devotion to his art than stand back in horrified wonder at his temper tantrums.  And Tom is right.

Ruby emerges as a man in love with his art, someone so devoted to it that the title of the book becomes more and more apt as a reader continues.  I have only read it intermittently, but find it both entrancing and distracting.  Much of this is due to Tom Hustad: a tireless researcher (still finding new information after the book’s publication), a fine clear writer, and someone Ruby trusted . . . so the book floats along on a subtle friendship between subject and chronicler.  And Tom was there at a number of sessions, providing valuable first-hand narratives that enlighten and delight — especially telling are his stories of relationships between Ruby and his champions: John Hammond, George Wein, Hank O’Neal, Tony Bennett, Mat and Rachel Domber, and others.

And the little details that make a book even better are all in place: a loving introduction by one of Ruby’s long-time friends, Dan Morgenstern; a cover picture showing Ruby and Louis (the photographer another great friend of the music, Duncan Schiedt) . . . and orange was Ruby’s favorite color — one he associated with the aural experience of hearing Louis for the first time, his sound blazing out of the radio speaker.  The layout is easy on the eye, all in nicely readable type.

In the interests of full disclosure (as the lawyers and politicians say) I should point out that I admire Ruby’s playing immensely, met him in 1971, spoke with him a number of times, saw him at close range, and contributed information about some private sessions that I recorded to this book.

BORN TO PLAY is a fascinating document, invaluable not only for those who regarded Ruby as one of the marvels of jazz — it is also a chronicle of one man’s fierce determination to create beauty in a world that sometimes seemed oblivious to it.  Many large-scale works of scholarship are thorough but cold, and the reader feels the chill.  Others have adulation intrude on the purpose of the work.  Tom Hustad’s book is an ideal mixture of scholarship, diligence, and warm affection: its qualities in an admirable balance.  I think the only way this book could have been improved would have been for Ruby to continue on past 2002 and the book to follow him.

Click here to purchase a copy.

And here’s something to beguile you as you click — the Braff-Barnes Quartet of 1974 (Ruby, George Barnes, Wayne Wright, Michael Moore) sauntering through LIZA:

May your happiness increase.

“JAZZ FUTURIST, MAD SCIENTIST”: SCOTT ROBINSON in the WALL STREET JOURNAL!

Thanks to the tireless Will Friedwald, we have this wonderful portrait and juxtaposition of two unlikely spheres —

‘What planet did this guy come from?” That was how Benny Goodman reacted when he heard the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke for the first time. Trumpeter Randy Sandke has been known to use the same line to introduce the multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson.

Although Beiderbecke’s music has a certain futuristic quality to it, Mr. Robinson is even more aptly compared to an otherworldly visitor. There’s no one else doing anything close to what Mr. Robinson is doing: playing every style that exists in the jazz world (and classical, pop and world music besides), on almost every horn known to man (reeds, brass) and even some rhythm instruments. He is the only musician I have encountered who is equally likely to play clarinet in a re-creation of the music of Sidney Bechet on a Monday, and then turn up on Tuesday playing tenor saxophone with a swing-era big band. On the next night, you might spot him playing baritone in the sax section of a contemporary orchestral jazz composer; then on Thursday, he’ll bring out his really far-out horns for an outerspace jam with musicians from the Sun Ra Arkestra.

[ccrobinson] Ken Fallin

During a concert earlier this year at the Riverdale YM-YWHA in Bronx, N.Y., Mr. Robinson played cornet alongside two trumpets (Mr. Sandke and Jon-Erik Kellso) in a harmonized transcription of Beiderbecke’s classic solo to “At the Jazz Band Ball.” In “Waiting at the End of the Road,” Mr. Robinson and co-leader Dan Levinson crossed swords on two C-melody saxophones. And throughout the evening, Mr. Robinson also held down the bottom of the ensemble on another horn rarely heard since the 1920s—the bass saxophone, which gave the group a vigorous two-four rhythmic push that bands without a horn bass simply don’t have.

This week, Mr. Robinson plays with the legendary Bob Brookmeyer as part of “East Coast Sounds,” as presented by the L.A. Jazz Institute.

At his home in Teaneck, N.J., Mr. Robinson recently told me, “I’ve had so many comfortable years being everybody’s sideman, in every style, and I’m still going to keep doing that.” But after playing on more than 200 albums mostly for other people, he now wants to devote more time to pursuing his own musical visions. “I think of music as a big world that you can go into and never come back out of. It’s endless, and it’s filled with endless rooms and funny doors and branches that go off like caves.” Mr. Robinson has released four highly eclectic albums for Arbors Jazz and was determined to start his own label, “ScienSonic Laboratories,” by the time he turned 50; the label launch occurred earlier this year, a few weeks before his 51st birthday.

Born in New Jersey and raised in a farmhouse in Virginia, Mr. Robinson was encouraged to play jazz by a father who collected old records, a mother who taught piano, and an older brother, Dave, who plays traditional jazz cornet. He read a children’s book about a geeky kid who “found himself” by playing the saxophone, which inspired him to start studying that instrument, especially when he discovered that his high school had a bass sax that no one had touched for 50 years. Later, he bought a beat-up trumpet for $3 and taught himself to play that as well. “My home base,” he insists, however, “is the tenor sax, which is a whole musical universe unto itself.”

The same can be said of Mr. Robinson’s “laboratory,” a converted garage behind his house, where he stores his working instruments; thousands of additional parts and incomplete horns are stashed in his basement. Lanky, bearded and bespectacled, Mr. Robinson plays up the idea of looking and acting like a mad scientist of jazz; he has a custom lab coat that he wears to his own gigs, and hands out specially made test tubes as souvenirs. Although comfortable in the jazz past, his own ScienSonic projects are distinctly futuristic and avant-garde, starting with the album covers, which use paintings from ’50s science-fiction paperbacks by the late Richard Powers.

Scott Robinson’s collection of musical oddities includes variations on the saxophone, a couple of theramins, and a marimba set once used by Sun Ra’s Arkestra. When he plays music, his genre of jazz is equally eclectic.

The centerpiece of his collection is the contrabass saxophone, one of only 16 or so believed to exist, a seven-foot monster of a horn. Mr. Robinson discovered it in a secondhand-furniture store in Rome about 15 years ago, and it took more than two years to convince the owner to part with it. It was worth the effort: The contra produces a beautiful roar that might be likened to the love dance of a pair of happy hippopotami but is like nothing else in the human world. Then there’s the normaphone, an utterly Martian device invented in Germany that seems to be a saxophone, a trumpet, a trombone and bicycle pump all at once. Wildest of all is the slide saxophone, in which the pitches are controlled by a slide instead of keys and pads. Mr. Robinson once brought the slide sax over to the home of Ornette Coleman—godfather of all musical experimentalists—who somehow managed to play it in tune. The sound it produces is rather like the hybrid of a sax and a theremin.

Along with the giant saxophone, Mr. Robinson has stuffed his garage with what looks like King Kong’s rhythm section: a bass marimba (the very same one used by Sun Ra on his famous “Heliocentric Worlds” album) that you have to climb a ladder to play; a 180-pound Chinese ceremonial drum; a 7-foot banjo; and what looks like a 9-foot conga from the Philippines. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he also plays teeny-tiny devices like the sopranino sax and the indescribable octavin; there’s also the sarrusophone (played on one famous recording by Bechet), which looks like a brass-band marching instrument but uses a bassoon-like reed.

Only a handful of these implements are brought to bear on the first ScienSonic release, “Live at Space Farm,” a facility that is itself a unique hybrid of zoo and museum in Sussex, N.J. (whose exhibitions include a giant stuffed bear, once the largest in captivity, big enough to play the contrabass). The music is a completely free-form piece improvised by Mr. Robinson and a quartet co-starring saxophonist Marshall Allen, current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Recorded in a bell tower in the middle of a cow pasture, the last note of the work was spontaneously provided by an obliging bull.

Meanwhile, a firm in Brazil is building Mr. Robinson the world’s first subcontrabass saxophone, which promises to be the biggest and lowest sax in history. The saxophonist also looks with a mischievous glint in his eye at his slide soprano: “If only I could get one of these on a bass sax,” he says.