Familiar standards that still sound fresh out the box

Jazz-round-up

There's a song called "Love is Like Jazz" on the recent album
69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields. "Love is like jazz", Stephin Merritt sings, "The same song a million times in different ways... It's divine, it's asinine, it's depressing and it's almost entirely window dressing but it'll do." The grudging, back-handed compliment makes a fitting context for the consideration of two remarkable albums which present music that has been unavailable for almost half a century. It's still the same old song, but it has rarely sounded this good.

There's a song called "Love is Like Jazz" on the recent album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields. "Love is like jazz", Stephin Merritt sings, "The same song a million times in different ways... It's divine, it's asinine, it's depressing and it's almost entirely window dressing but it'll do." The grudging, back-handed compliment makes a fitting context for the consideration of two remarkable albums which present music that has been unavailable for almost half a century. It's still the same old song, but it has rarely sounded this good.

Duets Volumes 1&2 by Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins (Vanguard) offers 25 versions of "standard" songs so familiar that one might doubt whether anything new could be made of them, even back in the Fifties when these sessions were first released on a series of 10 albums. That they provide the occasion for quite stunningly original readings is just cause for celebration in itself, but what the cornet player Braff and pianist Larkins make of them goes beyond mere originality. By sticking closely to the guiding template of the governing melodies and chord structures, they chose to work within the frame of tradition rather than trying - as the modernists of the time were so intent on doing - to escape it. This, coupled with with their success both as a team and as individual soloists, and the wonderfully responsive ambience of the recording, means that the albums display a sensitivity rarely heard in any genre, still less in jazz.

Produced by the legendary John Hammond - who "discovered" Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen - the sessions were recorded in the rich, blooming, acoustic of the Masonic Hall in Brooklyn in 1956, at a time when the dead sound of the studio was the norm. Pairing Braff with the little known Larkins - who had been an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald - for what was then one of the very few trumpet and piano duo recordings ever made, was Hammond's masterstroke. Larkins' old-school approach, in which he plays a variant of stride piano that enables him to provide a walking bass line with the left hand while making decorative trills with the right, allows the astounding brilliance of Braff to blaze.

Braff on his own is a suitable subject for several learned dissertations. Born in Boston in 1927, by rights he should really have been a hot-shot modernist but instead found a place for his unalloyed lyricism in what became known as "mainstream" jazz, a nostalgic mid-point occupying the no man's land between the iconoclastic boppers and the fusty New Orleans revivalists, and which has since led to more than its fair share of tedious, time-bound, music played by young jazz fogies. But Braff's cornet playing, featuring a brassy vibrato at the end of each phrase that can admittedly become rather bugging, is like a trumpet riposte to Ben Webster's breathy tenor saxophone tone, and he especially excels on ballads, of which there are many examples here.

The versions of "My Funny Valentine", "Little Girl Blue" and - to die for - "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" on Volume 2 are masterpieces, while the jaunty, effortlessly witty, spring-heeled performances of "In a Mountain Greenery", "Thou Swell" and "Blue Moon" on Volume 1 are equally great. Like two other duet recordings I know of - Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan's blues and gospel sets for Steeplechase in the Seventies, Trouble In Mind and Goin' Home - Braff and Larkins can be listened to almost without cease. Divine but never asinine, you just can't get enough of it, even if it does sound like the same thing over and over again.

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