Published in The Herald, Monday August 12, 2002
It may not be in quite the same historic league as Benny Goodman’s legendary gig at the Palomar Ballroom, or Louis Armstrong’s Town Hall concert or the Ellington band’s riot-sparking Newport performance, but American cornet star Ruby Braff’s Wednesday night concert at The Newton Hotel for the Nairn International Jazz Festival was undoubtedly one of those nights which will be talked about for many years to come – at least by those who were there.
Before Braff opened his mouth, things didn’t bode well. Looking frail and wizened, and suffering from emphysema, the 75-year-old made it out of his wheelchair and up onto the stage. Propped up by pillows, he looked as if he should be in the local infirmary rather than in front of an all-star band. However, as soon as he began to talk, it was obvious that the notoriously cantankerous star was in good spirits, reducing the audience and the musicians onstage to tears of laughter with his politically incorrect jokes.
Of course, it wasn’t just the priceless patter which made Braff’s concert such a highlight. It was a fantastic night musically – a perfect example of swinging, melodic chamber jazz. Holding court for well over two hours, Braff brought out the best from an already terrific band which featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, John Bunch on piano and Jon Wheatley on guitar.
Rather than taking the easy – and more common – all-star concert option of featuring each soloist individually or dividing the band into different line-ups for different numbers, Braff simply had each musician play a share of the melody before everyone took a solo. The results were sublime, particularly the beautiful, laid-back version of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, which prompted Braff to comment: “That was like a nice conversation.”
Braff’s playing gave no indication of his breathing difficulties; indeed, the horn seemed to double as an oxygen mask, and as the evening progressed, he played for longer stints, always with that unique, mellow tone. He was surprisingly generous in his praise for his fellow musicians, and was clearly relishing the opportunity to be playing with Bunch and Hamilton again.
In those wee small hours of Thursday morning, it looked as though the highpoint of the festival had just finished, but there were still treats ahead, among them Scott Hamilton’s lunchtime reunion with pianist Brian Kellock. Kellock hooked up with his own band (John Rae on drums and Kenny Ellis on bass) to join American saxophonist Harry Allen for a gig on Friday evening which proved that the United Reformed Church should probably be a last-resort venue for Nairn jazz. Allen and co rose above acoustic problems and turned in a terrific extended set which left the tenor man raving about Kellock’s trio being the best in Britain.
Aside from the Braff concert, the gig which best summed up the spirit of the Nairn International Jazz Festival was the lunchtime concert by members of the Gully Low Band. Featuring a quartet made up of the magnificent trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the elegant clarinettist Dan Levinson, virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden and tuba player-bandleader David Ostwald, the first set epitomised the relaxed, informal feel of the best Nairn concerts. This was a rare chance to hear this kind of line-up and their swinging, tasteful performances of such little-played 1920s and 1930s numbers like Diga-Diga-Doo and From Monday On were superb – sheer pleasure.
The relaxed feel of this ensemble was in complete contrast to the more carefully staged and formal atmosphere of the two concerts by the entire Gully Low Jazz Band, on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. Although this band went down well with audiences, it seemed to lack the joyfulness and spontaneity of the small group sets, and, frankly, leader David Ostwald’s dull announcements were tiresome and unnecessary.
Also more formal and less rewarding than might have been expected was the concert by young stars Benny Green (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar) on Thursday evening. This slick, sharp-suited duo was, unquestionably, a class act but there was a strong sense that they were simply working their way through the material on their album, and that, to them, this was just another stop on the touring itinerary. Which is about as far removed from the one-off, peculiarly Nairn, feel of the Braff concert and the Bob Wilber-Fapy Lafertin gig of earlier in the week.