Live Jazz: Rick Braun Upstairs at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Listening to Rick Braun perform at Vitello’s Thursday night, I was reminded of the long jazz history of trumpet players who also sing.  Start with Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.  Don’t forget Bunny Berigan, Clark Terry and Jack Sheldon,  And, since the release of his Rick Braun Sings With Strings, you can add Rick Braun to the list of vocalizing brassmen.  (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for the album.)

Although he’s been best known as a high visibility player in the smooth jazz genre, trumpeter/flugelhornist Braun’s identity as a jazz artist reaches well beyond that narrowly framed category.  So, too, for his singing, which becomes more expressive every time I hear him.

The Vitello’s performance supported the release of Braun’s new holiday album, Swingin’ In the Snow.  And he didn’t stint at all in the production values for the show.  In addition to a seven piece band, Braun was accompanied by a string quartet, all playing  richly atmospheric arrangements by pianist Philippe Saisse.

The Rick Braun Ensemble

Given the warm amiability of setting, it didn’t take long for the holiday spirit to embrace the room.  And how could it have been otherwise, with Braun and his players performing a program including such familiar classics as “No Place Like Home For the Holidays,”  “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “ I’ll Be Home For Christmas,”  “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” and a crowd singalong version of “White Christmas.”

Rick Braun

And there was more, a sprinkling of tunes reflecting Braun’s wide-ranging musical tastes.  Among the highlights: his jaunty vocal on Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me”; an especially warm-toned flugelhorn solo on “It’s Love” (also by Bernstein), delivered over a simmering rhythmic groove.

Braun also added a contemporary version of the Hugh Masekela hit, “Grazing In the Grass” recalling the remake he’d done a few years ago with Boney James.

What really made the performance  work, however, was the way Braun gathered all the individual elements – the Christmas songs, the Bernstein tunes, the lush accompaniment, the briskly swinging jazz segments, his amiable exchanges with the crowd, his warm vocalizing – into a compelling musical experience.

Although he sometimes had a tendency to allow his enthusiasm to push his voice into edginess, Braun usually compensated with expressively lyrical phrasing.  And the counter-voices of his trumpet and flugelhorn playing added yet another engaging element to a grand evening of music making.

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